Highly sensitive people may experience information overload more than others. Here’s what you can do about it.
If, as a highly sensitive person (HSP), you find yourself with several incomplete tasks, you may be suffering from “information overload.” But since we HSPs already feel overstimulated easily from all the stimuli around us, how can we tell the difference?
Information overload has been studied by neuroscientists and the results have found that the overprocessing of information results in concentration loss and confusion. So too much information can make it near impossible to focus on any task.
And, you guessed it — information overload can make it even more difficult for highly sensitive people to see a project through to completion. Whether it’s something at work or at home, information overload might be the reason that you can’t focus on one task. So stop beating yourself up and give yourself a break. And who knows? You might find it easier to focus once you do.
But I know, easier said than done. So let’s look at the correlation between information overload and highly sensitive people.
What Is ‘Information Overload’ and How Does It Affect HSPs?
Information overload occurs when the brain tries to process too much information at one time. All of that information becomes too overwhelming, making it hard to process any one piece of information. According to the Handbook of Stress, a manual used to train psychologists and behavioral scientists, information overload is the same as sensory overload.
Of course, HSPs might know this as overstimulation. Our brains are constantly absorbing all the sounds, smells, sights, feelings, and even tastes we experience. Seeing, hearing, or even smelling other things while trying to focus on a task can confuse our brains. This exterior sensory stimulation makes it difficult for the brain to process the information we’d like it to.
Interior information overload can also be a problem for highly sensitive people. Even with limited exterior stimuli to process, the brain can become overloaded with thoughts. Everyone daydreams. But because HSPs are sensitive to stimuli, our brains continue to process information long after we’ve experienced it. We also tend to do a lot of overthinking. So this might be why you feel like you are always working, but never seem to get anything done.
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The Science Behind ‘Information Overload’
Information overload is not a theory — it’s backed by scientific evidence. Our brains are constantly receiving information, 11 million bits per second to be more precise. That is a lot of information for anyone. Non-HSPs can only absorb up to 80 bits of this information. That means the brain can absorb less than 0.001% of the information that it receives — and filtering relevant information from irrelevant information is one of the brain’s functions. However, some people can’t efficiently decipher which information to keep and which to ignore. The result is sensory overload.
The brain of an HSP is more likely to retain irrelevant information. This is because our brains try to process more information than those of non-HSPs. We tend to not filter out the irrelevant information. In other words, our brains try to process more than the 80 bits of the 11 million bits of information every second. It’s no wonder that we often experience information overload.
How Multitasking Impacts ‘Information Overload’
We live in a world of multitasking — it seems that it’s a necessity if we ever want to get anything done. But it might be just the opposite. Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin believes that multitasking can limit productivity and cause information overload. In his interview with The Guardian, he links this theory to hormone production and overstimulation. Because multitasking results in the release of cortisol (a stress hormone) and adrenaline (fight-or-flight), the brain experiences them both continuously.
This means that our brains lose focus as we try to complete more than one task. Levitin also explains that the release of these hormones “reward” our brains for this loss of focus. His findings indicate that overstimulation from multitasking actually decreases cognitive function.
So highly sensitive types, and everyone else, can increase productivity and cognitive function by limiting multitasking. When we try to do too much, we often wind up doing less or performing poorly. Instead, single-tasking can be much more effective, particularly for HSPs.
While information overload cannot be prevented completely, sensitive people can take some basic steps to help it occur less often. Since we are always processing information, eliminating as much overwhelm — and external stimuli — as possible can help. If you recognize yourself in experiencing information overload, here are some ways to deal with it. Otherwise, you may burn out, which is also common among HSPs.
5 Ways to Deal With Information Overload
1. Eliminate as many distractions as possible.
While trying to focus on a task, HSPs might find it helpful to eliminate as many distractions as possible. Turning off the TV, avoiding social media, and not checking your email can help you better focus on the task at hand.
To do this, you can try turning off your phone, putting it in “Airplane Mode,” or simply turning the volume off. If possible, finding a quiet space away from distractions can help your brain from overloading with information, too.
Perhaps you can try working at the library, where you have to be quiet. Or you can create an area in your home and let others know that is your personal space to get work done. (If this is in a common area, you can even put up a curtain or room divider.)
2. Avoid multitasking and focus on one thing at a time.
Although it can be difficult, trying not to think about other tasks can also help you better concentrate on the one you’re working on. This can also help you get into a “flow state,” which is imperative for HSPs (especially those of us who struggle to focus).
In essence, try to avoid multitasking as much as you can. Yes, it’s tempting to send an email while you’re on the phone. And you might think you’ll get more done if you do several things at once. But doing so can make the quality of what you’re doing not as great, and also make you even less productive as a result. You don’t want your brain to get stuck in a continuous cycle of cortisol and adrenaline processing. So just try focusing on one thing at a time and see how it goes.
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3. Be discerning in information consumption.
We all want to learn and absorb information, but it’s important for HSPs to be discerning when it comes to the kind of information they are consuming. Since our brains try to process more information than those of non-HSPs, limiting the consumption of news and social media can help our brains better process the information we do want to retain.
This doesn’t mean you should never scroll through your news or social media feeds. But you might find it helpful to avoid doing so before attempting an important task. If your brain isn’t busy processing the information it just consumed, it will be able to focus better on what you’re trying to accomplish.
4. Consider the time that you’re at your best.
There might be a specific day or time that works best for focusing on tasks. This might be at night, when everyone is asleep, early in the morning, or on a weekend. HSPs should choose a time when their brains aren’t already overloaded with information.
Many HSPs have times when they can focus best, and you may have to test a few out to see which ones really work best for you. Choosing these times to perform tasks can help prevent information overload.
5. Take breaks to give both you and your brain a break.
Taking breaks is essential for HSPs, as they give our brains a well-needed rest to refocus. During these breaks, might also want to avoid additional information consumption. Rather than looking through your phone or performing another task, it is beneficial to relax, take a few breaths, and avoid stimuli when possible. (This is when your HSP sanctuary can come in handy!)
These types of breaks are important for HSPs, regardless of the situation, but are even more important when focusing is necessary. If HSPs suspect they are beginning to suffer from information overload, taking a few moments away from stimuli can help their brains recover. You can read a chapter of a book, go for a walk, take a nap — whatever will leave you feeling refreshed and ready to tackle your next task.