Information Overload

We’re wired to take in as much information as we can to protect ourselves and family. If we were cavemen living back in the day, this would be a huge advantage. In fact, those who could gather and process and use the most information were more likely able to eat better, live better, conquer their enemies, and have more sex. 

What more could you want? 

The problem is, in this age of information, there’s way more information than we can process or use.  We can get overloaded with information that has no usefulness and pretends to be important. We’re constantly bombarded with news and information which, because of the way it’s presented, seems like something we should know.  We have to stay up to date, right?

A few years ago, my wife Pamela and I took our five children and spent some amazing time in Peru.  We were really cut off from the world for almost two weeks. The quality time with them was priceless.  Because of that, we didn’t hear much news, but no worries. When we flew in from Peru after 12 days and flew home to CNN, we were bombarded with current events.  While we were gone, there was an attack in Tunisia, Greece went bankrupt, the English women’s soccer team advanced, and a horrible fire at a water park in Taiwan injuring 500. Not one of those things has any bearing on my life whatsoever, and yet if I let myself, I could begin to see the logic and pretend that they’re very important.  In fact, the more I watch and the more the pundits’ comment, the more important it seems. Literally two hours before, I didn’t know any of this, and now it’s all that matters.

As I write this, those stories have faded, but they have been replaced with the tragic and important school shootings, threats of nuclear war, celebrities being scrutinized for their free speech.  I’m not downplaying the importance of any of these events. What I’m saying is, the events that seemed so important a few weeks ago have been replaced by different headlines today, and the same will be true tomorrow. That’s the nature of news and information.  

If we’re not careful, we can start to think that’s what we should be learning and processing and become addicts of information.  The knowledge of any of these things has no direct impact on my family or me, but we pretend it does. Just a few years ago, if there were a bombing overseas, I would not know about it for days.  A few years before that, it would have been weeks or months if I found out at all. Now every event in every country we watch in real-time, and we feel as if it’s happening to us. In fact, our neuro-limbic fight or flight system is activated as if it were happening to us.

That’s the problem.

Where were you on 9/11?  We all remember as the events unfolded before our eyes in real-time.  When Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese, most Americans didn’t know about it until the following day and then only by radio or newspaper. There was no live footage.  Can you imagine if there had been? In the 1940s, people at home had to wait weeks for information about loved ones fighting in WWII.

This lapse of time did not decrease the importance of the events, but people read about it as something that had happened, not something that felt like it was currently happening.  Imagine the difference in impact if you had not found out about 9/11 until three weeks after it occurred, and you only read an article about it instead of watching it occur live in front of you.  How would your emotions have been different? I think there’s a better way. We must sift information in a more useful way that serves us instead of letting others decide what’s important for us.

I have used the same four quadrants Steven Covey used for time management for information management.  This creates a platform for thinking about how to use and process the overload of information.

Information in the Four Quadrants Important and Urgent

Things I need to know about today to affect what I’m doing or going to do today or very shortly. This might include some news, things on my calendar, and studying for a presentation I’m doing or a course I’m taking.

Important but Not Urgent

The kinds of things that genuinely make my life and my family better.  This includes education, topics on the four pillars of health, wealth, relationships and self-improvement.  This is where the real juice is. This is true education. It is where we know we should be spending time, but we put it off because it is not a headline.

Urgent but Not Important 

This includes almost all news, many magazines, most blogs and trade articles, and email.   The fascinating thing is that things all pretend to be important. They have very flashy headlines, and it’s easy to convince ourselves that they’re important.

Not Urgent and Not Important

Fiction, movies, TV shows, much crap on the internet, and all social media.  Don’t be offended. I know you think they’re important, but they’re a lot of useless, albeit entertaining, information.  The problem comes when we treat them as if they’re important which you see people (not you) doing all day long. How much time do you spend in each quadrant?  I’m not asking you to get rid of any one thing, but I would ask that you think about where best to spend your time. Could you, if you tried, push some of Quadrant III and IV time to Quadrant II, and even understand that much or what we define as Quadrant I is probably III, and much of what we define as Quadrant III is probably IV?  Just a 20 percent shift will change your whole life. 

Did you realize that one hour every day for a year makes you an expert in that subject?  What if you took one hour away from Quadrants III and IV and learned a new or perfected an old skill for that hour a day for one year?  That might make all the difference in your life, whereas the news headlines will continue to change and will not be relevant one year from now. Information can be useful and even powerful, but only if you have a system for deciding what to pay attention to.  I hope this helps.

Living Every Minute,

Dr. Tim, M.D.

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