If you’re like most people, you experience a regular torrent of information. From news media and social media to information from friends, family and work, there is never an absence of opinions or material to consume. And information is so ubiquitous, it can be hard to tune in without becoming overwhelmed. The classic line in a song by Crowded House is apt: “Try to catch the deluge in a paper cup.”
But at the same time you may not feel you have the capacity to deal with all the input and information, you also want to stay up to date and knowledgeable about your world, your work and your life. New research suggests ways to be selective about how information is consumed, and it sheds light on the best choices for when to seek or avoid new knowledge.
The Deluge Is Real
Fascinating reserach by Outsell and the Copyright Clearance Center found work-related content sharing has tripled since 2016. Executives shared content almost 25 times per week with a minimum of 12 people each time (middle managers shared almost 16 times with 9 people and individual contributors shared almost 11 times with 6 people). When people worked remotely, 34% of them reported increased frequency of content sharing. Combine the content you receive from work with all the other content flowing in, and it’s easy to see how overwhelm can occur.
Why It Matters
Information is critical to the ability to make good decisions and respond effectively, and it is key to the ability to adapt and cope. In fact, resilience is defined a 1) staying aware of situations and context 2) making sense of information and then 3) improvising, responding and adapting.
For example, understanding your finances is key to making sound investments, knowledge about your health is critical to choices about your fitness or medications and appreciating the nuances of a political candidate’s views can inform your voting choices. But depending on your comfort with the information, you may choose to learn more—or less—about key issues.
How To Consume Information Wisely
You can be selective about consuming information by focusing in three ways:
First, consider how information makes you feel. New research from the University College London suggests people are more likely to seek our information based on their expected emotional reaction. You may be more likely to avoid information you think will make you unhappy or uncomfortable. A study by Carnegie Mellon University found people tend to avoid information if they believe it will threaten their happiness or wellbeing. This is fair, and the mantra, “Don’t ask questions you don’t want the answers to,” applies here.
But you can also push yourself to consider going outside your comfort zones. Sometimes growth only occurs with discomfort. Ask your partner for hard feedback which can help you adjust your behavior and build the relationship. Or have a tough conversation with a customer about why you lost the deal, so you can improve your services or products and win the next time. Protect yourself when it’s necessary, but also challenge yourself with tough information so you can grow and get better.
Also consider how useful information will be. The University College London also found people tend to be more receptive to information when they believe it will be useful. Seeking information can be time-consuming or require work in researching, spending time with experts or asking questions, and this effort can get in the way of staying informed.
But consider how information can help you solve a tough problem or improve a difficult situation or add to your happiness—and be intentional about seeking this kind of information. Spend time researching customer feedback before you make a major purchase. Dig into which tours or experiences will be the best investments during your vacation, or take time to investigate multiple options before you choose the new software you’ll use for managing your project at work. All of these will add to the density of information you’ll face, but they’ll pay off with better outcomes.
Interest and Agreement
The Carnegie Mellon University study found people tend to avoid information when it doesn’t agree with what they already know (known as confirmation bias). In addition, when people receive new information but disagree with it, they are more likely to forget it. In addition, the University College London study found people are influenced by what they think about often. If you love spending time with your dog, you may be more likely to seek information on nearby dog parks, the most nutritious dog food or the best doggie daycare facilities when you go back to the office. It’s natural you would focus on what you know and agree with, and what’s prominent in your experience.
But despite the natural inclinations to pay attention to information which agrees with your preferences, it is also important to stretch and challenge yourself with new or unlikely information. You can grow through seeking information regarding topics you’re less knowledgeable about or which are new to you. Avoid the echo chamber created by algorithms which deliver information you already know or agree with—and stretch toward new horizons which are adjacent to your interest, but different.
If you’re a gardening enthusiast, perhaps you can learn more birds in the area. Or if you thrive in your accounting role at work, you could explore the financial impacts of new hybrid work models your company is considering. Also seek out diverse points of view and a range of opinions that may be different than your own. The “adjacent possible” suggests new stimulation and ideas can come from the edges of what you already know, so look there for information and to expand your own point of view.
Information can be overwhelming, but it can also be interesting, stimulating and foster growth. Be curious in a directed way about things you want to learn. But also be curious more generally—pursuing information which may not have immediate applicability, but which you can store away for a future fresh approach. Protect yourself and manage your intake, but also seek new horizons which can help you be more open to others and to the world around you.