How Information Overload Wears Us Down

“I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it.”
-Mae West

Temptation surrounds all of us and knowledge workers are not exempt; we are tempted daily by the allure of the Internet, social networking, news sites, and real-time communication with friends and colleagues.

Care for another?

These temptations must be avoided to remain productive, however, it appears that self-control isn’t a limitless resource: we can run out of it if we are not careful.

Exercising self-control is critical to being a productive worker.  Schedules must be kept, non-work activities must be kept to a minimum, and distractions must be filtered out.  Unfortunately, self-control is also finite.  Studies in both humans and animals have shown that resisting temptation depletes glucose levels, which in turn reduces the ability to focus on challenging tasks.

In one study, human volunteers were divided into two groups.  One group was told they may eat the provided chocolate chip cookies while the other group was told to not touch the cookies but to instead snack on some radishes.  Needless to say, the group eating the cookies was not exercising self-control by resisting the charms of the radishes, but the radish-eating group had to resist the appeal of the tasty cookies.

Both groups were then asked to complete an impossible puzzle, and the length of time they would commit before giving up was measured.  The cookie group lasted an average of 19 minutes before giving up, faring much better than the radish group who on average gave up after just eight minutes.

The study was repeated with dogs where one group did nothing and the other was asked to sit still for ten minutes (a mentally exhausting task for a dog), and then attempt to remove treats from a chew toy that had been altered to make it impossible.  The results were the same, the dogs who had already exerted self-control had far less patience for the new task.

The studies demonstrate two things.  One is that our ability to exert self-control is tied to glucose levels (so eat more snacks). The second is that the act of restraining ourselves is mentally and physically taxing.  By subjecting ourselves to temptation that we must actively resist, such as online distractions and constant communication, we degrade our ability to be effective at our jobs.

For reducing Information Overload and its impact, the answer (aside from more glucose), is that perhaps we have to remove temptation altogether, so we do not expend valuable energy controlling ourselves.  Basically, keep out of temptation’s way until you are done working.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

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