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Battling the Bytes

June 03, 2003 12:36 IST

How to deal with the problem of information overload online

The risk of data related stress touches everyone who spends considerable time online, be it a manager, researcher or a Web surfer. A worldwide survey (Reuters, 1996) found that two thirds of managers suffer from increased tension and one third from ill-health because of information overload.

Consider these statistics compiled by

-- 15,652 Number of Web sites discussing information overload

-- 40 per cent of workers who say their duties are interrupted more than six times an hour by intrusive communications

-- 50 per cent of U.S. professionals who repeatedly receive messages that say the same thing

A study conducted by the University of California, Berkeley (2000) revealed that the world's total yearly production of print, film, optical, and magnetic content would require roughly 1.5 billion gigabytes of storage. This is the equivalent of 250 megabytes per person for each man, woman, and child on earth.

According to this definition, information overload is the inability to extract needed knowledge from an immense quantity of information for one of many reasons and can occur when a person:

  • Does not understand available information.
  • Feels overwhelmed by the amount of information to be understood.
  • Does not know if certain information exists.
  • Does not know where to find information.
  • Knows where to find information, but does not have the key to access it.
How to battle information overload

While several factors contribute to data stress online, there are also tools to help fight this problem.

1)  Email: Downloading, reading and replying to an average of 50-100 emails a day takes a considerable amount of time and effort. This is made worse by the fact that we have to battle with spam and unnecessary forwarded email. Think before you click the send button when you come across an interesting site or email.

IDC has forecast that an average of over 36 billion person-to-person emails will be sent daily by 2005, according to this site. These top ten tips to overcome email overload have some useful pointers.

2)  Search: A large part of the time we spend online is looking for relevant information. These are many ways to avoid wasting time when searching:

  • Instead of surfing around to find information, use agents that make your work easier and more efficient like RSS News feeds, that we featured here yesterday

  • Organise your bookmarks. Most browsers allow you to create folders. Save all interesting and daily referenced sites for easy access. You can also use the help of online bookmark managers like

  • Use search engines effectively. While these programs can make life easier, an ineffective search can result in thousands of unwanted pieces of files and information. Set a time limit when searching for something. This article says that searchers can fight information overload in two ways - at the source and with tools and techniques that cut down on the amount of information we wade through. There are more tips here
3) Content: Filtering information quickly and retaining only what is important or will be of use later, is a technique that can be employed, when sifting through information online. As this article advises: "Develop the skill to evaluate what information is immediately useful, what is transitory and what is important."

4) Time: As busy people, we are always running out of time. It makes sense, therefore, to put away a certain time for a specific job and also set time limits on them. Learn the valuable art of time management and practice it when you are online.

More resources:

-- Fighting data asphyxiation is difficult but possible
-- Ways to beat overload

-- Coping with overload

-- Email avalanche


    Anita Bora