Lessons from outside the classroom : managing information overload

If I had to choose one phrase to describe my first year of library school, “information overload” would be a strong contender. This term gets thrown around a lot these days, and it can be used to denote a few different things. In my case, information overload manifests itself in the form of a near constant state of cognitive overstimulation.

There’s a sense in which this overstimulation is a good thing. After all, I wouldn’t be finding the library school experience overstimulating if I weren’t extremely interested in the things that I’m doing and learning. Nevertheless, overstimulation, as the name suggests, is not a sustainable state of being. The negatives associated with overstimulation can be numerous, but for me some of the big ones are having difficulty shutting my mind off (especially when trying to sleep), focusing on one thing at a time, knowing when to take a break, and letting myself be mentally in the present moment.

As the academic year ends, I thought this would be a good time to share one of the most valuable lessons I learned in my first year of library school – how to manage information overload.

Develop an organization strategy

Developing an effective way to stay organized is a skill that will yield life-long benefits no matter where your post-library school life takes you. While different organizational tools and strategies will work for different people, I strongly recommend trying an alternative to relying on your brain to remember and keep track of everything, an approach that I have, admittedly, relied on too heavily.

Even if you’ve had good results using this exclusively brain-based method, relying on external resources can serve as a way to lighten your cognitive load, which can promote some much-needed mental clarity.

If you’re not sure where to start, consider thinking about finding a note-taking system that works well for you.

Practice some non-digital hobbies and habits

Like many people, I spend nearly all of my work and study hours in front of a computer screen. If I pair this with all of my non-work/study related computer (or other screen-based) activity, then I’m faced with the uncomfortable realization that I might be spending the majority of my waking-hours looking at a glowing rectangle. While one can, in theory, use a computer (or other web-connected device) in a non-information-overloading manner, in practice, this is really difficult to do, with the ever present temptation to scroll a little further down the news feed, or open a new tab.

In light of all of this, I’ve found that developing some non-digital, or at least non-screen/web-based hobbies and habits has helped me to feel a bit more grounded in the present and focus on one thing at a time. Some of my favorites are reading print books (as opposed to e-books), keeping a pen and paper journal, and listening to vinyl records, CDs, or the radio instead of Spotify.

Take care of yourself

We’ve talked about self-care before on Hack Library School, but it’s a concept that deserves a continuous endorsement, so I’ll go ahead and give my own two cents. Self-care can take any number of forms. I’d place some of the things I’ve already mentioned above in this category, but I think it never hurts to think about self-care in the most literal sense. For me it includes making (as opposed to finding) time to exercise regularly, prioritizing healthy-eating, and practicing some kind of daily meditation (I’m still working on making this one a sticking habit).

I’m neither an expert nor a long-time practitioner of meditation (having only begun last December), but I’ve found it to be the single most beneficial thing I’ve ever done for my mental health. With regards to the present context, I find that meditating in the evening can serve as a mental filter, sifting out a bunch of the informational garbage that accumulates throughout the day. If you’re interested trying it out, I recommend searching the internet for “guided meditation” as a starting point. And don’t be afraid to try out different techniques and resources – different approaches work for different people.

While summer is still a really busy time for a lot of is, the end of the academic year can serve as a great opportunity to recharge and think about some of the things we learn during the school year, outside of the classroom.

How do you deal with information overload? Let us know in the comments!

Cover photo credit: “Information Overload” by James Marvin Phelps is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Ian Harmon is an MSLIS student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Graduate Assistant in the Scholarly Commons, the University Library’s digital scholarship center. Prior to entering library school, he earned a PhD in Philosophy at Illinois and taught philosophy at Rice University. Ian is interested in the ways that technology impacts research and the dissemination of scholarship, and hopes to work in digital humanities and scholarly communication. He is also passionate about the role that libraries serve as central institutions of the public sphere and supporters of the common good. In his spare time, Ian likes riding his bicycle, watching baseball, and listening to late night public radio. You can follow him on Twitter @harmoniant.

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