Information Overwhelm Without The Internet

Aug 12, 2016
Joe Buhlig
~4 mins

I hear people refer to information overwhelm more often than I would expect. The context varies but the idea is the same: finding information on the internet is so easy that the person has a hard time deciphering what is right and what to question. Some even take it as far as to suggest Google is making us dumb.

The validity of that statement and my opinion of it aren’t important for the context of this article. What is important is the cause of the overwhelm: a broad range of topics at our fingertips. Type a word into any web search tool and you are hit with page after page of words to consume. It boggles your mind when you try to comprehend the complexity of the systems behind the interface that deliver those search results.

And regardless of your opinion on the effects this has on our brains, it’s safe to say that most of the results are surface level articles. In other words, the vast majority of the internet articles out there will focus on the introduction of a topic or dive deep into one small aspect of a broader discipline. When combined and reviewed collectively, it’s possible to ascertain expert levels of knowledge about a given search. But more often than not, it requires a great deal of time and experience in scouring the web to develop that level of expertise from search results.

In most cases, we aren’t going to take the time necessary to understand a topic fully. We would rather skim the headlines we find, get our answer, and move on. This is where the traditional sense of information overwhelm comes in. There are so many potential solutions to our query that we have difficulty discerning which trail to follow. It’s overwhelm due to a wide variety of topics made available to you.

But I’ve recently discovered a different type of overwhelm. Instead of this broad topics overwhelm, there’s also deep topic overwhelm. Both flavors come with two constraints: a lot of information going into your mind in a short time frame. With the broad form, we see a variety of subjects available to us through systems like Google. But the deep form flips the equation and gives us a ton of detail about a single realm of knowledge. In my case, this is revealed through the rapid consumption of business and productivity books.

You could make the argument that given wisdom in writing queries you could create a list of search results that would emulate deep topic overwhelm. But again, you will be presented with a series of webpages that would need to be reviewed collectively and digested over a longer period of time. At that point you no longer fall into the constraint of a short time period, whereas reading multiple longform works on a single subject in short succession does.

A prime example of this difference is the book, Getting Things Done. There are countless people, myself included, who discovered the GTD framework through searches and failed to implement it successfully until they broke down and actually read the book. Despite the thousands of articles out there about GTD and, in my case, months of reading them, you’ll never reach a level of full understanding until you read the book.

But if you read a lot of these types of books in a short time, you’ll quickly start to feel this deep topic overwhelm. There’s so much information and an incomprehensible level of rationale behind each author’s arguments that you can’t help but notice numerous aspects of your life and work that you want to change or develop. You have loads of data entering your mind that you want to act on and feel like you can’t keep up.

The logical response is to slow down. Give yourself time to process and adapt. In my case, that’s not possible since my quick reading is a part of Bookworm. But I’m convinced I would continue my biweekly pace even without the podcast and accountability. There are two reasons for this:

One, I’m able to draw correlations and similarities I wouldn’t otherwise have seen. Given the short timeframe that I consume these books within, I have found that I still have a deep recollection of the last seven to ten that I’ve read. The book I am currently reading ends up being colored by what I’ve learned across thousands of pages I am still intimately familiar with. I find connections across multiple texts that I would normally miss.

Second, the new information I’m learning becomes motivation to keep moving forward with action items and deepens my rationale for what I’ve learned. Reading a thought-out reasoning for an author’s belief will encourage you to either develop your own perspective or challenge you to reconsider your existing view. In both cases, you come out better on the other side.

When you have the ability to be both broadly overwhelmed and deeply overwhelmed, through the internet or through books, you can choose between two responses: you can wait to learn until you need a piece of information, or you can take advantage of your good fortune and learn as much as possible right now. I’ll take the latter.