Information overload makes us snap, crackle


I AM FOND of saying that if I lose my Day Runner, I will have to stand in the middle of the street and wait for someone to come by and tell me where I am supposed to be.

It is not that I have too many places to go or too many things to do, although both are true. It is because I have too many things to remember. My brain is like a grocery bag. You can only pack it with so many heavy cans before the bottom rips and they all fall out.

We are, all of us, flooded with information. It comes in the form of advice, reminders, news, numbers, memos, surveys, rumors, reports, pictures and schedules. It comes at us from phones, cell phones, beepers, voice mail, e-mail, television, radio, newspapers, the Internet and neighbors over the fence.

Our brains are overloaded, and if all we did was simply forget some of that information, it might not be so bad. Annoying to those around us perhaps, but no worse.

But forgetting is the least of the consequences of this information overload.

It wears us out. It actually makes us tired. It makes us anxious and irritable. It gives us high blood pressure and migraine headaches and insomnia. And it has a name: Information Fatigue Syndrome. IFS for short.

The term was coined by a British psychologist to describe the malaise of the information age. We can't keep up with the exploding volume of information and it makes us sick.

You know you have fallen ill with IFS when the sound of the ringing phone sends you into a rage. It is just one more person who wants to tell you something, ask you something, and you resent it beyond all reason.

All this input makes it hard for us to act, and that is another symptom of IFS. When the supply of information is endless, when do you have enough? President Clinton is famous for requiring one more person's opinion, one more discussion, before he makes a decision. Corporate executives talk about "the paralysis of analysis."

IFS afflicts parents, too, and perhaps it is worse for us because not only are we required to process more information than we need, but one thing is not connected to the other: A meeting at work to prepare for, carpools to negotiate, errands to run. The list is endless and it is also random.

The stress is compounded by guilt. We do too much and still feel guilty about what we are not doing with our children, what we are not volunteering for, what we are not reading. Each new piece of information that comes at us adds to this list of choices, tasks, possibilities and responsibilities.

"The parent today has more instructions from school, more to sign, more health-related items, more fund-raising campaigns, more volunteer requirements, more regulations," says Jeff Davidson, author of "Breathing Space" and of "The Joy of Simple Living."

"Family time is more structured than it has ever been. More lessons, more teams, more trips, more equipment."

Add to that a flood of information on how to be a parent: the books, the magazines, the advice columns, the television shows. And the endless threats to our children: television, guns, movies, the Internet, video games, crime. Even peers can be more sinister today, more than just a bad influence.

Chances are both parents work. And they've been told, too, that they must work at staying married.

"I would bet most divorces stem from the fact that both partners are overloaded," says Davidson. "Never mind that they don't get along."

When we are overloaded, everything takes longer, everything is just too complicated. We do not feel free, light, unburdened. We are irritated, snappish. We can't think straight. We can't remember anything. We need some space. We want to be alone. We want to go to sleep. We want to turn it all off.

"It is not a matter of simply crossing things off your list of things to do," says Davidson, "because everything on that list is important."

Parents, Davidson says, must learn to forsake this information crunch and trust their own ability to come up with the right answer, trust their own common sense, lose this fear they have of getting it wrong.

"We have to let go of our need to over-control, over-read, over-file, over-collect," he says.

And ask for help, he says. From the spouse, from the kids. Pay for it if you have to. You can make more money, but you can't make more time.

"You only have so much time here on Earth," Davidson says.

"If you inundate yourself with too much information, you will find it speeding by."

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