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Handling Information Overload

I wrote this in May, 2009 and posted it to TCS list. It provides an example of how problem solving works. how can we always find a solution ("common preference", aka something non-coercive to do) in time? this is an illustration of the method.

Here is a way to approach information overload (whether novel or not):

make a very rough estimate of the amount of information

make a rough estimate of how much time you have before the next deadline or important event

consider several methods of dealing with the information (such as thinking it all through carefully, or skimming it, or setting it aside for a week until you're less busy) and choose one that you expect will finish fast enough not to cause any problems.

With this simple technique, one can remain calm in the face of an unlimited amount of information, and it doesn't matter how slow one processes information. If necessary, just say "wow, that's too much to handle right now. i will look at it later and decide how to approach it then."

CEOs and other leaders do this kind of thing all the time. it's perfectly normal. if they need to make a decision, and their advisors are rushing or confusing them, they say "please write it up in a report" and then they have time to read the report and make a decision without being rushed or anything.

this technique can fail. things can go wrong. it's not 100% foolproof. in those cases, creativity is required. and in those cases, the amount of information you're facing is irrelevant. it never fails b/c the amount is large. if the amount is truly huge, that only makes it *easier* to decide how to deal with it. it makes it very clear you can't process all of it this minute, so you'll know not to try.

what especially makes this technique fail is entrenched theories, irrationality, hang ups. that's why they cause coercion, frustration, psychological trauma, etc. (btw the TCS technique for avoiding coercion is fairly parallel and similar to the technique i described above. roughly, if you can't resolve a dispute btwn two active theories now, adopt the single theory for how to proceed in the meantime, and figure it out later.)

Elliot Temple on July 11, 2013


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