Information overload—you’ve all been there, right? You’re trying to make a positive change to your diet, exercise plan, investment strategy, parenting style, so you start digging in and doing some research. And boy, do you research. And research. And research. You’ve got 72 browser tabs open, three books in various states of dog-ear, and six friends on speed-dial giving you advice.
Want an instant example? Try Googling, “best diet for weight loss.” Or “how to get a six-pack.” Or our personal favorite, “how to get baby to sleep through the night.” Once you drag your bloodshot eyes away from the computer screen three days later, congratulations! You are officially over-informed.
We generally think of the wealth of information available at our fingertips as a good thing. (What did we ever do without YouTube, Wikipedia, and Google?) But all this data is a double-edged sword. Finding the right information at the right time to help us meet our goals—good. Getting sucked into so much information our head explodes—bad… for your health, your sanity, and your goals.
In today’s day and age, it’s all too easy to become waterlogged with information. At the click of a mouse, any number of blogs, media articles, infomercials, and YouTube videos promise they have the secret to losing weight, getting ripped, sleeping better, getting rich. The vast array of information, opinions, and “facts” (often conflicting) at our fingertips makes formerly easy things complicated, and what starts out as a healthy mission (I want to lose weight! Will research healthy eating plans.) quickly turns into something decidedly unhealthy.
What are the consequences of being over-informed, and how do you know when you’ve hit your saturation point?
The more you research, the worse you feel about your current situation.
You’re feeling really good about your health and fitness efforts, but you still have some pesky belly fat you’d love to get rid of. So you check out the latest podcasts, blogs, books, and message boards.
But the more you read, the more you start to believe you not only have to lose weight, you have to gain muscle in all the right places, lose cellulite in all the wrong places, and get rid of that extra hair you-know-where before you really look good. You thought you were doing okay, but after all that research, you’re actually pretty unhappy with the way you look.
Researching this topic is taking over your life.
Your baby is sleeping pretty well, but you wish she’d go longer at night, and you wonder if “sleep training” would help. So you check out the latest podcasts, blogs, books, and parenting message boards.
That night, you’re staring at the ceiling, your brain a frenzy of cry it out vs. attachment, extinction vs. Ferberizing, shush-pat vs. pick-up-put-down. The more you read, the less you know what you want to do. So what do you do?
You read more. You ask your friends what they are doing, and what they think you should do. You post on message boards, leave comments on blogs, enter naptime statistics into $1.99 iPhone apps. You start to believe that the One True Answer to your baby’s sleep needs is out there… you just haven’t found it yet. And until you do, you cannot. Stop. Looking.
You experience “paralysis by analysis.”
You’ve been walking regularly for a few months now, and are ready to step up your fitness game with something more intense. So you check out the latest podcasts, blogs, books, and fitness message boards.
Kettlebells look like fun! But everyone says you need to pick up heavy weights, like with squats and deadlifts. CrossFit seems to work for people, but so does P90X. And Insanity. And Pilates. And what about yoga? Maybe you should train for a 5K! Or a marathon! Or a triathlon! You can buy a book. Or a DVD. Or maybe you should get a gym membership. Or hire a personal trainer.
Before you know it, you’ve been researching for a week—and you’re longer even walking, you’re so overwhelmed. You had no idea that exercise was this complicated.
Clear Your Head
Sound familiar? Whether it’s nutrition, parenting, exercise, financial planning, or the agenda for your next vacation, it’s all too easy to get caught in the “information gathering” phase, and never move into the “action” phase—actually doing what you’re reading about. The good news is that if you find crushed under “information overload,” we’ve got a three-part plan to dig you out.
Now. Just stop. Close all 72 browser windows, return the books to the shelves, and politely tell your friends you’re good now, thanks for the help. You need a few days (minimum) to “detox” from your information infusion, so no more research until you’ve restored some of your energy and the situation no longer feels overwhelming.
Realize you already know the answer.
Given all of your reading and research, it’s highly likely that you’ve already stumbled on a good approach. When reading about nutrition, this one 30-day program kept coming up over and over again. When researching sleep training, you kept thinking, “I don’t think ‘cry-it-out’ is for us.” After reading about all the different exercise plans, you remember being really excited about trying kettlebells.
The reason you kept reading (and reading, and reading) is because the vastness of the web makes you believe your perfect plan is somewhere out there, just waiting for you to find it. But don’t let perfect be the enemy of good! The point is, your gut can already steer you to a course of action based on everything you’ve read—and chances are, it’s a pretty good plan. So, listen to your intuition.
Any action. Seriously—do anything. You are stuck in a search loop, and the only way to bust out is to act! Don’t worry if your nutrition plan isn’t totally finalized—just commit to eating no added sugar through the weekend. Try putting your baby on a nap schedule for a week, with a “no cry” approach. Call an RKC and schedule a kettlebell lesson, even if you’re not sure you’ll like it. Just do something, and you’ll immediately feel the weight of all that information slide right off your shoulders.
In addition, action in and of itself is a powerful motivator. Taking the first step in your new plan will help you feel more confident about your current situation (even if “the plan” has yet to fully materialize).
Protect Your Brain Space
Finally, the next time you have a decision to make, prevent information overload by having a research strategy in place ahead of time.
Choose just a few sources you trust.
Based on the subject at hand, think about who you trust the most, and rely on them (and only them) for information. You’ve been reading Mark’s Daily Apple for years and generally agree with most of what he writes, so when you want to start exercising, search his articles first. (There’s no need to then ask everyone on his message boards what they think you should do for exercise—that’s information overload territory.) Maybe you also ask your friend the personal trainer, and listen to a Robb Wolf podcast on exercise. But keep your research limited to those trusted sources. Is there a potential you’ll miss out on the latest, greatest exercise fad by not Googling for hours? Yes… but there’s an even larger chance you’ll end up disappointed, obsessed, and paralyzed first.
If the area in question is new to you (and you don’t have any “go-to” resources), tap into your friends and family. If you’re ready to create an investment strategy, ask your Dad, the VP at your office, or the friend who is stock-market savvy. Have them direct you, or point you to a website, book, or other information source. And then, treat them as your trusted source (and stay off the message boards).
Be wary of internet forums.
Are you seeing a theme, here? Use message boards and forums carefully. Some forums (like our Whole30 forum) are carefully moderated, so you’ll get clear answers straight from the experts themselves. Others (like most of the parenting boards out there) are a virtual Wild West, where everyone is the expert, and facts are hard to tell from opinion.
If you visit a message board often and have come to believe certain people really do know their stuff, feel free to rely on them as your trusted source. But beware jumping into a random forum with a complicated health, financial, or parenting question—you’ll likely leave more confused than when you started.
Finally, remember that before the internet, people still managed to eat, exercise, save money, and raise children. Word of mouth is one of the best ways to share and learn new, effective ideas, so consider talking to more real people and relying less on the virtual world. And good old-fashioned trial and error will always be in style, so don’t be afraid to try something new, even if you haven’t gathered 100% of the data available.
The wealth of immediate data at our fingertips can be a blessing and a curse, so wield that mouse carefully, and don’t let yourself become a victim of information overload.