The Purge : Dealing With Information Overload

“One of the effects of living with electric information is that we live habitually in a state of information overload. There’s always more than you can cope with.”
Marshall McLuhan, communication theorist
“Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.”
– Gertrude Stein, writer and poet

Like, duh, we live in the Age of Information ? Oceans of data at the click of a mouse? 24/7 broadcasts? Podcasts, RSS feeds, alerts, Tweets, streaming, pokes and ‘likes’? Movies and radio on demand?

When the amount of available knowledge out there is less like a little pond than it is like the Amazon (the river, not the store), it’s easy to get mesmerized into fishing out as much information as you can from that vast source than actually being able to truly use what you get. There’s just too much. It’s overwhelming.

You’re not just a brain and eyes parked in front of a computer screen. You are a person with a body and you lives in the world.

This world.

You have relationships, you have things to do, you have stuff to share…and a whole life to live. You can’t live a whole life in a little area –whether that area is in front of the TV, or the PC. You gotta get fully involved. It’s not as if you can save up enough unused time (or unlived life) to tack on at the very now, is it?

Active living, like active learning, involves all your senses, not just the ones you utilize sitting in from of a screen (computer or TV). It’s active doing, or just consciously being. You’re not being fed information. You’re not filtering. You’re being.

See, data is information you may or may not have put into context yet. Feed data in, your brain does all the work of assorting, connecting, identifying nuances and making judgment calls. But you don’t have to do it 24/7, or for too long. That unbalanced course of action has repercussions you probably already know:

  • Burn out (Lifehacker) – mental, emotional and physical.
  • Computer-related ailments like eye-strain, back pain, carpal tunnel….not to mention headaches. Plus other physical issues that come from sitting too long (see here and here.)
  • Time-exhaustion – When you’re tethered to your electronics, how do you discern between work, rest and play? How would you recognize and protect your personal time?

Whatever you call it, a media fast, an electronic fast — do something on a regular and consistent basis that involves more than looking at pixels, or watching stuff on a screen. Unplug. Mute. Switch off.


Here are a few articles on how to go about a media fast, and why it would help you to do so every once in a while.

  • Media Fasting,” (Rootsimple) on a complete media fast from the news. “That means no newspaper, no Google news, no NPR, no broadcast television of any kind. “
  • A Media Fast,” (Zenhabits) Part 6 of a series by Leo babauta on “Edit Your Life.”
  • How Not To Multi-task,” — Another post by Leo on working simpler and saner

What else can you do?

Move away from the screen. Keep moving. Just move. Exercise. Walk. Get a little breathy, a little sweaty. Use your ‘animal body‘. (For a video of Mary Oliver reading the lovely poem from where ‘animal body’ came from, go here.) Move that body. Haul ass.

“I run to keep myself from going crazy. The payoff of habitual running in stress management and mental focus almost outweighs the cardiovascular and weight management benefits, although those are great, too. And for me, an indoor track won’t cut it. As a freelance writer who spends long hours tapping away at a keyboard, I need the fresh air, sunshine (although that’s rare in winter here in Chicago), and rosy cheeks that a good run delivers.”

There’s something that happens when your heart’s pounding, not from stress but from supplying your body with the air it needs to move. You’re all lit up. Everything else falls by the wayside — meetings, deadlines, grocery lists, PTA meetings and dental appointments, email– you’re just focused on doing just this one thing. Get out of your head and revel in your body. Get out of your house, your office, and walk around, look about.

E-dump –as in dump everything electronic aside (in a safe place, you’ll get back to it later) and go. Go do flow-activities where you don’t think-obsess-follow-up-assess-respond-edit, you just are:

  • Walking, or running.
  • Enjoying the sunlight, feeling the breeze, smelling the air.
  • Shooting the breeze with your friends.
  • People watching.
  • Browsing, NOT buying.
  • Preparing good food– and not eating it standing up. No eating in front of the microwave, the TV or the kitchen sink. Us the good plates, set the table. Do NOT watch TV.

You know how you get when you overeat and constipation sets in? A similar situation can happen when you stuff more data in your head that you can actually (mentally) digest. The things that work for the physical ailment can also help you out here:

  • Eat less crappy food. – Take in less crappy data. Monitor your intake.
  • Don’t eat too much. – Don’t over-stuff your head, leave some room for imagination to move.
  • Get a varied diet. Exercise. – Don’t just take in information, act on it. Try things out, go out and learn actively, don’t sit and absorb passively
  • Every once in a while, fast. Push away from the table. Or the computer/laptop.

The discussion on “David Allen’s Five Steps to Optimizing Your Focus and Resources“, (Lifehacker), riffing off the New York Times’ “When Office Technology Overwhelms, Get Organized” talks about another side to organizing the information you get to be able to deal with it effectively.


Daydream. Enjoy the moment. This isn’t a call to arms, telling you to cut yourself from the sources of information that you need in your life. It’s just a gentle nudge to take things in moderation, and upon occasion, drop out from the electronic and immerse yourself into real life.

“The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk, poet and peace activist


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