Information overload is supposedly a very real, very current phenomenon that our parents never had to deal with. And if you believe we're just a wimpy generation compared to our forefathers, here's a stat to knock your socks off: we see more than 34 billion bits of information per day online — an equivalent of 2 books a day. The stat comes from Adrian Ott's research while writing his book The 24-Hour Customer. It captures our predicament aptly: now more than ever before, we're drowning in potentially meaningful information.

We interviewed Getting Things Done author David Allen, who calls this phenomenon an attack by the "barbarians of overwhelming opportunity." See the video below:

Information Overload: Not the Real Problem 

To be clear, even though consuming 34 billion bits of data daily is massive, that's not what's creating the crisis. It's the potential meaning that could be in the information we've received that stresses us out and keeps us from focusing on one thing at a time.

Allen explains with an example: nature. When you set foot in a forest, every one of your senses feeds you information about your surroundings. But you don't implode because there aren't that many potentially meaningful things you have to worry about — until you come across dangerous animals or suspicious fruits. 

Email is a different story. You never know which message is urgent or life-threatening, and which is just spam. Hence every new message in your inbox becomes a potential mountain lion or poisonous berry. Not knowing which is which causes stress and pressures you to get through it all. Suddenly you're looking at 15 emails instead of working on your report.

Addicted to the Ping

Which leads to the addictive behavior connected with email, or with putting out fires that aren't even on your to-do list.

Handling and organizing all these little pings on our attention creates dopamine in the brain, making them highly addictive. It's not surprising then that approximately 28% of our working day is spent interacting with our email. We simply love the rush of going through new messages and  sending off responses ASAP; it makes us feel productive. In actuality, the time-suck it's sapping us of the energy we need to do our real job: creative problem solving. 

Cognitive Load, Overloaded!

Handling all the potentially meaningful information in our inboxes and in our daily lives takes effort. And according to a study by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, there is a limit to our "cognitive load," the amount of mental effort needed to accomplish a specific task. Once this load is taxed, no energy is left to make good decisions. 

Clarify and Organize Your "Barbarians"

So how does one deal with all this info without getting stressed mentally and physically? You have to set apart a time to clarify and organize these inputs before you can act on them. Allen's GTD method calls this the processing stage: you decide what you want to do with each idea. Is it urgent? What’s the goal? What’s your next action step?

Are we just a wimpy generation?

So to circle back to the original question: is information overload real? Absolutely. Though the real danger is the flood of potentially meaningful info we let in. Why not make it your New Year's resolution to adopt the GTD practice of processing all your input so you aren't overwhelmed by the barbarians at your gate?