Here's How to Cure Information Overload

By Mike Elgan  |  Posted 2016-02-04 Email Print this article Print
Curing Information Overload

The cure for information overload is to shift your efforts away from the action needed to learn a fact and toward the skill of storing and retrieving information.

What is knowledge? According to my favorite online dictionary, knowledge encompasses "facts, information and skills acquired by a person through experience or education."

Here's a question: When a doctor or lawyer consults reference books, is the information they look up "knowledge" before they look it up? The information is on a shelf in the office, and it's probably something they learned during their post-grad education.

What's really going on in this scenario is that the most important knowledge is awareness that the information they need is in the reference books and they have the skill to find and use that information. Whether the answers are in the professional's brain or on a nearby bookshelf is irrelevant. It's all knowledge—or something like it.

One hundred years ago, almost all knowledge needed to be learned. In one hundred years from now, almost no facts or data will need to be learned because intelligent tools will present us with the facts when we need them.

Halfway through this transition, we find ourselves in a confused state about what information needs to be learned and what needs to be stored for later retrieval. That confusion is the feeling we usually describe as "information overload."

We tend to think information overload is just the natural response to the fact that there is too much information. The unexamined assumption that we must learn all this information is a remnant or cultural habit from the pre-Internet age, from education and from what we were told growing up.

The cure for information overload is to shift our efforts away from the action needed to learn a fact and toward the skill of storing and retrieving information.

It's simple: Anything you can quickly find when you need it is better than knowledge. The ability to find the answers is not only as good as the ability to have the answers—it's better. There are two reasons for that.

First, human memory is fallible—or worse than fallible because memory errors are usually accompanied by the certainty that memory is correct. By storing facts and data in its original form rather than memorizing it, you avoid victimizing yourself with false memories.

Second, investing your time and energy in the skills involved in information storage and retrieval will result in several orders of magnitude more "knowledge" at your fingertips than investing time and energy in learning and memorization.

How to Make Everything Searchable

Anything that's in text form is easy to search for later. In fact, it's hard to store text in a place that isn't searchable. Most of the things you see online can be left where they are because you can search Google to find them. You can store other documents on Google Drive or some other cloud service, or a specialty site for holding information, such as Google Keep or Evernote.

Personally, I funnel everything into my cloud email service (Gmail), and that's all searchable. I can add my own notes to this searchable database by sending myself emails. And when I get something sent to me, no further action is required because it's already in my repository.

In general, it's a good idea to pick one repository and stick with it, so you can find anything with a single search.

It's a great idea to invest time in learning how to search better. Tutorials like this one abound.


Mike Elgan, a Baseline contributor, is a Silicon Valley-based columnist, writer, speaker and blogger.


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