Scientists say that our brains process up to 35 GB of data daily. Imagine how much would that be if we only took people from the IT industry. Our brains haven’t significantly increased their capacity since the dawn of the digital era. To be able to be truly productive we have to efficiently separate the signal from the noise. In this two-article mini series I will tell you how I deal with information overload while working as a Quality Assurance Specialist in one of the biggest software houses in Europe.
Brain protects itself against information onslaught
As a person with a bit of experience in the sound industry, where listening your to surroundings is crucial, I’ve observed a common issue among colleagues: we subconsciously started ignoring the world around to be able to focus on our own tasks. Sometimes, even if people shouted out our names, we just wouldn’t notice it. That’s because constantly analysis audio features is such a huge effort for the brain. Our brains just switched off most of the senses, focusing on a single task.
Information addiction clouds us
Take a look around and see how many people walk down a street or ride on public transport without peeking at their social media accounts. Not many. It’s dreadful that only a handful of us can go through a day without constantly checking the mobile phone for new notifications. According to Eryk Mistewicz, author of “Narrative Marketing”, the amount of information our grandparents processed through their whole life, is consumed by us monthly. Even though half is this information is rubbish, we still choose to consume it. We’re just too afraid of getting left behind. We process a lot of information but it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re better informed. Our memory has become worse, since we started relying on storing information on mobile devices. Distractions make us lose focus and ignore our world, or even compromise our own safety.
Don’t treat your brain like a rubbish bin
Tip 1: Make it simple by data reduction
Today, people will usually scan an article’s content rather than read it carefully. They prefer looking at pictures to reading. Digging through mountains of junk information in search of quality content costs a lot of energy. No wonder your brain gets lazy in an attempt to protect itself from clutter. Avoid ornate language in internal company documents and technical manuals. Let your readers find the information quickly and then comprehend it easily. Make it simple. Compress the data – just like Skype compresses the audio stream so that it can also work on slow connections or imagine you have to include all the details in one SMS. Keep it short and concise.
Tip 2: Keep it handy and well organised
Some of us have a really chaotic workflow. If it works for you, that’s ok. Once you start working in a team, however, you just need to make it a bit more organised. What’s seems very simple to us, may constitute an informational overload for others. Just imagine you need to take over somebody else’s job and they have a total mess in their files. Frustrating, isn’t it? And unnecessary frustration is something our brains prefer to avoid at all costs. Keep your files well-organised and minimalist. They should be rich in information only if the situation really calls for it.
At Netguru, project files are reviewed periodically by employees from the same department (teams) to make sure people keep them trim and neat, so anyone can jump in and quickly become familiar with the given project. There’s always a minute taker at team meetings, who later uploads a report to our huge company wiki. The reports are available to everyone, so that they don’t need to spend ages looking for specific information.
Tip 3: Habits save time and your brain’s energy
It’s well known that habits change the brain. Once we repeat the same action multiple times, it becomes automatic. As a result, we spend much less energy carrying out the action, since we don’t need to think about it. We’ve all experienced the weird feeling when our brain executed a habit, even though there was absolutely no need to do so. Have you ever tried to turn the light on when entering a room in the middle of the day, even though it was really bright?
UX designers should be your inspiration about people’s habits in terms of usability. Their job is to make sure that once users land on a website, they stay there and use it, instead of quickly switching to a different one. The same set of rules applies in many other aspects of our lives. Habit is second nature, right? Build a smart workflow taking advantage of people’s habits. It will help avoid the information overload.
In the second part of the series I will tell you how to approach your to-do-lists and how to deal with the huge numbers of notifications. I will also present some simple mind-calming practices that saved the day for me during many stressful projects.