8 Lessons we Learned from Dealing with Information Overload
How to Stop Feeling Overwhelmed in the Age of Social Media and COVID-1910 min read

Many of us have grown up in the early 21st century: the age of the Internet. It was and still is a time where the internet itself is in its infancy. But one thing is for sure: we can’t live without it now. Our current societies wouldn’t fully function without it: our houses, jobs and (inter)national infrastructures are wired to tap into the digital realm.

Here’s the thing, though: since the Internet and us grew up together, nobody quite knows how to navigate the new online world that we’ve created. Not a single soul who could have predicted how our smartphones would become such an essential extension of our digital, social selves1. Nobody taught us about how to handle the ideas that engulf our minds on a daily basis: how does dealing with information overload even work?

So, the ugly truth is that we have nobody to turn to but ourselves… and each other. When Maryse wrote an article about her struggles as part of the Generation have-it-all, the Globonaut crew decided to collaborate and share our thoughts as young people that experience a large part of their social lives online. Let’s start that conversation for ourselves and the next generation. We’re sharing the 8 most important lessons we learned from dealing with information overload.

Dealing with information overload: six computer screens from the 90s show a now signal sign
Photo: Rubenz Arizta

1. Understand the Importance of Boredom

Katja: In the days of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which Europe’s borders begin to close, in which I entered my room yesterday doubting whether I would be prepared to spend the coming days inside, the week in which I realized, for the first time in a long time, that my to-do-list doesn’t need to be done today, doesn’t need to be worked through by tomorrow, will survive being delayed. I will take the time to think about information overload we face, by first thinking through of the first thing I associate with the absence of information – ‘boredom.’

The threat of ‘boredom’ for me is synonymous with not being occupied by the outside, with not having something that more or less urgently needs to be done, needs to be figured out, some obstacle that needs to be overcome. A constant challenge that keeps you distracted, keeps you moving.

Information overload is precisely what keeps us distracted, in-between, and restless, so we cannot face and judge what we really want or need or feel.

Information overload is precisely what keeps us in-between and restless so we cannot face and judge what we really want or need or feel. Removing the physical possibility of interaction with information overload, made easier through social distancing and requiring only the self-control to turn off your digital devices, may be our opportunity to face our ‘boredom.’ If you are fortunate enough to have the time, allow yourself to switch off all distractions and face your uninterrupted thoughts.

2. The Create/Consume Ratio

Maryse: I consume a lot of media and stories and while I love the inspiration they can offer me, it can bog me down if it’s too much. I’m seeing all these amazing people doing these incredible things, and I’ve been going down this rabbit hole on the internet and I really need to sleep now. Sounds familiar?

In her video A Healthy Imbalance, Sadia Badiei explains the concept of the create/consume ratio. The idea is that creating, more than consuming, will make you feel more energized and assured. Try to cut down on your passive consumption by shifting the focus to the things you like to actively do. She explains: “It felt like I was consuming my world more than I was creating it” and encourages everyone to start creating for the sake of creating, not necessarily for the sake of productivity or professional growth. The School of Life raises a similar idea in the video essay Why You Don’t Need To Be Exceptional.

Photo: Luke Porter

3. Productivity Does Not Equal Success

Janine: I think everyone can relate to the feeling of being overwhelmed. Facing the options that are being thrown at the younger generation while also realizing the responsibilities we carry to sustain the future of our planet, is quite frankly very confusing and overwhelming.

At one point you want to quit everything, march on the streets every day to raise awareness on the crisis our planet is facing, the next moment you want to do really well in the corporate world and prove that your voice matters and that you can be a success following your own path. At least that’s how I feel.

It’s quite obvious what this approach is lacking — balance. 

I think it’s admirable that we’re the generation that is able to, wants to and feels obliged to do it all. But if we’re not learning to move with balance, we’ll fall in the trap of overwhelming ourselves and achieve none of what could bring actual sustainable success for ourselves and the planet.

Nature doesn’t hurry, yet everything is accomplished.

Lao Tzu

Studying astrology, I learned that every day carries its own energy. The moon shifts into a new zodiac sign every 2,5 days creating a shift in our moods. Some days are brilliant for putting our heads down and working pedantically, other days are beneficial for taking time out and gaining space and objectivity. I think when you start to live in sync with these energies, you are actually being productive in a more sustainable way, and thus achieve happy, healthy long-term success for yourself, the people around you and the planet.

The generation that can do it all has to get back in touch with the one that knows it all — nature. I think the solution to not feel overwhelmed is being in contact with nature as much as possible and the essence of what it teaches us: “Nature doesn’t hurry, yet everything is accomplished” (Lao Tzu).

4. Unplug Once in a While

Marijke: One of the most tiring and overwhelming aspects of the modern times is the online world. The Internet is attractive, offering so many opportunities and endless inspiration. Articles, documentaries, series on Netflix, talk shows… the list goes on. Especially if you’re interested in social media, like me, the Internet easily soaks up hours of your time.

Sometimes I feel like social media leaves me standing on the sidelines, just watching other people living their lives, while I am paused and passive. At first I feel inspired by Instagram posts, articles on blogs, and documentaries on Netflix, but after a while I feel like it starts to block my own creativity. It makes me feel disconnected to the real world, to my own life.

Photo: Daoud Abismail

When I feel the Instagram addiction sneaking in, I delete the app from my phone until I don’t miss it anymore.

The Internet numbs me, so I’ve learned to be careful. For me, that means being selective: I have only one social media account on Instagram. I mainly follow inspirational artists like illustrators and photographers. When I feel the addiction sneaking in, I delete the app from my phone until I don’t miss it anymore. This means that every couple months, I am offline on Instagram for a couple of weeks. It feels very freeing. And in general I try to unplug as much as I can. My phone is on flight mode while working. It is switched off during the night. It is at home (or on flight mode) when I’m on holiday making day trips. And my best online friend is Screen Time Protection.

5. Start Taking Notes to Fight the FOMO

Qiu Ting: We’ve all seen the typical social media posts and all-too-common travel listicles2 that feature the “top 10 most-visited places” that play into our fear of missing out (FOMO). It’s almost like if you didn’t visit those 10 places, you didn’t go there at all. It’s the same feeling when you come back from a trip and you always get the same few questions: Did you try this… and that? Did you do this… and that? Where did you go? What did you eat?

Those listicles are only shallow representations of somebody else’s experience. Anyone can come up with a list of places or activities by asking a local or spending a few days in a city. We should only look at them as a reference, to alter them to suit our personal preferences. Or just do away with them completely and create our own. You can let go of what other people think is ‘insta-worthy’3. Other people’s perspectives rarely live up to your own expectations.

Instead, when you’re exploring places, taking photos and absorbing your surroundings, let go of that obsession to capture everything. Taking notes will help ease the FOMO by writing down what matters to you: consolidate your memories of interesting observations and heartwarming conversations. This will help you cut out trivial information like the things you ate and where you stayed. This works when you’re travelling, but in everyday life as well.

Photo: Sofia Sforza

6. Know Thyself and You Do You

Maryse: Invest some time into figuring out what matters to you. What do you really care about? What are your values and are your actions aligned with your interests? So many people ask so much of you, it’s impossible to do all of it. Prioritizing is not just a process, it’s a practice. Your priorities can be your guiding principles.

People often want you to care about stuff as deeply as they do. Regularly ask yourself: is this your priority or someone else’s? Here’s an example my friend gave me: “I might feel clumsy not knowing actors or singers by name when others talk about them, but at the same time I don’t think it’s important in my life.” She explains that learning to filter helps keep information overload at bay.

We are constantly shifting between our own personal world (habitus) and the bigger world. By making connections between these worlds, we filter and extract meaningful information.

We are constantly shifting between our own personal world (habitus) and the bigger world. By making connections between these worlds, we extract meaningful information from ‘the bigger world’ for our own lives. This filtering is a skill that comes naturally to some, but is hard for others. Once in a while, take some time to (re)formulate your priorities. Check if you are actually spending time on the people and things that matter to you. I do this once a month to put my worries in perspective. Here’s a final reading tip that will help you with this: The Life Changing Magic of not Giving a F*ck by Sarah Knight.

7. Start Reading Selfishly

Roselinde: One of my teachers gave me this advice when I was in the middle of writing my master thesis a few years ago: “start reading selfishly”. You don’t have all the time in the world to give your full attention to every piece of information you find, and you certainly don’t have to. You’re only human, not an all-knowing deity or an encyclopedia on legs. When you know what your own interests are, what topics you want to know more about, and which skills you might want to develop, it’s perfectly OK to filter and scan. Yes, your interests can always change, but believe me: you don’t have to read, view or listen to everything in depth.

One simple app that has particularly helped me sift through the ocean of inspiring content I see everyday is Pocket. Whenever I see something I want to read, but don’t have the time to right away, I just save it for later by bookmarking it. Do I really go back and check the app to read every single link I’ve bookmarked? No, definitely not. I probably only check about 20% of the content I’ve saved. I’m totally OK with that. Saving things for later eases my mind and makes me feel like I’m never missing out. Dealing with information overload is a mental game for me: I can trick myself into thinking I can always read something in a few weeks, when I have more time (yeah right).

Photo: Abhijith S Nair

8. Pick Your People

Marijke: It might sound a little unkind, but I am a strong advocate for selectively picking your friends. I get inspired by people pretty quickly, easily agreeing on seeing each other again. In the last couple of years, my partner and I have met so many wonderful people that our social circle kept growing. At a certain point, however, it became unmanageable to keep up with everyone. We had to face the truth: you can’t keep in touch with everyone; you have to be selective.

We reflected on our backpacking experience. We met so many inspiring people and had deep conversations with complete strangers. But everyone was travelling and most would simply leave the next day. There were no strings attached, just inspirational encounters without feeling obliged to keep in touch.

It’s OK to invest in some friendships, while treating other encounters as once in a lifetime. You don’t need to feel guilty about that.

We learned an important lesson: it’s is okay to feel inspired by someone, without agreeing on seeing each other again. It’s OK to invest in some friendships, while treating other encounters as once in a lifetime. It’s perfectly fine to meet some friends every two weeks and others only once a year. You don’t need to feel guilty about not immediately replying to some messages or letting some friendships fizzle out.

We always keep this question in mind: who are the friends and relatives that inspire us the most? Who leaves you with positive energy? Who wants the best for you and puts effort into the friendship? Those are the people on our priority list. We try not to make any promises about keeping up with anyone anymore. It’s time to choose quality over quantity, and that feels way more relaxed.

  1. Smartphone and self-extension: Functionally, anthropomorphically, and ontologically extending self via the smartphone” by Chang Sup Park and Barbara K. Kaye
  2. Merriam-Webster: an article consisting of a series of items presented as a list
  3. Urban Dictionary

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