In 1970 in his book Future Shock, Alvin Toffler predicted a future where information was vast, readily available and easy to access. He saw a world where technology reduced the time it takes to do tasks but increased the number of things we expect to do. Sounds like a good thing, right?
But Toffler didn’t end his story there.
Toffler knew way back then that the human mind would suddenly have too much information and choice to be able to make a decision. Information overload would shock us into indecision, inhibit action, increasing anxiety, and creating a perception of less freedom and less time.
Sound familiar? Because he was right.
Quite simply, we are no longer living in the age of information – we are living in the age of information overload. And the side effects are becoming more noticeable as time passes.
Before we explore those side effects, let’s take a step back and examine the human element of information. There are two crucial things you need to know:
1. Not all knowledge is the same.
Psychology splits knowledge into two distinct types:
- Declarative knowledge is knowledge about facts and things, the knowledge that something is. This kind of knowledge is available to your conscious brain. You can talk and think about it.
- In contrast, procedural knowledge is about how to do something; for example, problem solve, make decisions and reason. Procedural knowledge is harder to explain and verbalise.
Imagine someone asked you to explain how to drive a car. You could probably explain all the facts and give them an idea, but that doesn’t mean they could drive one. They would have to practice. There is a gap between what they need to do and how to do it. Someone learning to drive needs time and space to perform and practice. And now we come to the second crucial piece of information.
2. It is easy to overload the part of the brain that processes declarative knowledge
Declarative knowledge uses a part of your brain to initially store information, before moving it to your long term memory. In contrast, procedural knowledge uses a different part of the brain.
In a world filled with information, the part of your brain working on taking in new facts, figures and data can quickly become overloaded. It is continuously busy turning new information into lots of declarative knowledge, but very little procedural knowledge.
Whilst the brain struggles to figure out what new knowledge is worthy of implementation and practice, we stand by. We freeze. Cognitive psychology calls this Declarative Knowledge Overload. Toffler called it “Future Shock.”
Declarative Knowledge Overload is the brain’s brilliant solution to doing its primary job. Protecting us above everything else and keeping us safe.
Rather than act today, the brain knows that tomorrow is a different day. Why should the brain change its ways when tomorrow could be different? The do-nothing strategy is the most prudent. It’s the equivalent of “sleep on it and see if you feel the same in the morning”.
It leads to a habit of rather than practising new skills, we instead build up an ever-increasing database of declarative knowledge. We know what we need to do but not necessarily how to do it.
And this habit has significant side effects at many levels. At a personal level, in teams, leaders and organisations
Building declarative knowledge makes us feel like we are making progress when, in reality, we are not. Continually learning new things doesn’t mean anything if you don’t apply it. The information overload is just adding to the challenge and in itself has side effects:
- It reinforces bias. With so much information out there, it is easy to find information that supports your view. People naturally look for what they believe in, and we live in a digital world where complex algorithms serve us the information we “like” rather than dislike.
- It can lead to apathy. Think of the well-read person who is information-heavy, able to quickly point to an article or study to shoot down a new idea. Yet for all of this knowledge, everything is done the same way with little change over many years. Often people know what they should be doing, but still don’t do it. So we keep accumulating knowledge to give us comfort.
- It causes stress. If we are overloaded, we can feel stressed. Stress is a biological response to perceived danger, changing both your mind and your body so you can deal with what is in front of you. Stress can be and is a wake-up call in your body or be so debilitating that you freeze or run away from the job in hand.
- It leads to misguided wellbeing and resilience programmes in organisations. Many programmes give people information and build up declarative knowledge which doesn’t translate into procedural knowledge. These programmes measure success in terms of “happy sheets” with no focus on return on investment. Because in reality, they have only measured declarative improvements and not procedural.
Moving this to the world of work
A manager may study how to motivate and manage people. They may attend short information sessions focusing on the ideas behind resilience or listen to an inspirational speaker. The outcome is the same. The manager now knows it is possible to achieve those outcomes, is hopefully motivated to achieve that outcome but is left:
- Not knowing how
- Not given the space to practice
- Open to the effects of information overload
In reality, this is where we start to see the effects of information overload.
Because what does a “good” manager do? They seek to build on that initial knowledge by exploring the digital information at their fingertips.
They seek out articles on Linkedin and Harvard Business Review, studies available on Google and other peoples experiences, in their desire to improve and manage. Even if they find the knowledge they need, they still need time to experiment and put it into practice. All of which takes time and energy.
All at a time when they have to deal with everything they must know to do their job.
The result? Overload. A drop in productivity and an increase in stress and anxiety.
It is why we design our programmes around an understanding of the human experience rather than half-day workshops and chalk and talk.
- It takes practice for the brain to change. It’s through practice that turns declarative knowledge into hard-wired procedural knowledge – even under pressure.
- You can start to understand why people absorb knowledge but not change behaviour.
- We can start to think about how we manage information overload in our people. It is only going to get worse in the future.
- The more we focus on HOW, in our organisational culture, the more we establish a culture where people have the skills to change.
- You can start to see why we struggle to turn knowledge into action that delivers results.
I'll leave you with a few questions
- Do you see overload in yourself? Perhaps learning but never getting around to implementing?
- Are you frustrated by the outcomes you are achieving in your wellbeing, leadership and resilience programmes?