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Scientific Newsletter #18

Is Information Fatigue Syndrome Undermining Your Cognitive Capacity and Your Organisations Effectiveness?

Again this week, I thank you for being here! One of the capabilities of successful organizations is the ability to sustain the quality of decision making over time. Part of this process is based on the ability to consciously evaluate different values and perspectives, what the Enterprise Agility University calls Reframing. This process is related to Mental Agility, which is the ability to analyze multiple factors of a changing situation, even under great stress. You can find more about it in my 2018 book, Leading Exponential Change.

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That’s important because changing strategies require constant reanalysis of information coming from multiple sources and situations, both those we’ve already considered and new ones. This requires companies to have individuals with high level of Mental Agility. That’s why mental agility is at the heart of any adaptive and resilient organization.

However, reframing can be challenging because high stress levels impair the function of the prefrontal cortex, the thinking brain. Stress also impairs the ability to keep focus as a result of the release or decrease of certain chemicals in the brain.. As part of our leadership program, we work with leaders on new techniques to stay focused during difficult times. We call this disciplined focus, and it’s an essential part of decision making in a highly changing or exponential environment.

New models of enterprise agility (or how we ‘see‘ the organization and its capacities) enable companies to adapt to a new reality. To do so, however, we need to go beyond Agile and Scrum current approaches and start analyzing the science behind organizational change.

Today I’m pleased to share with you a very valuable article by our neuroscientist friend Dr. Delia McCabe. She brilliantly explains what Information Fatigue Syndrome is and how it can undermine your cognitive abilities and the effectiveness of your organization. It provides crucial information for all change agents working in a company trying to understand the impact of information in a rapidly changing environment.

Finally, please don’t miss the deadline to apply to speak at Enterprise Agility World Conference 2022. The world’s only event on science, organizational change and enterprise agility. This year the event will be language neutral and we’ll provide translation in over 30 languages to ensure we reach everyone.

I hope you find Dr. Delia McCabe’s article interesting and can turn it into something really actionable.

Call for Speakers for the Enterprise Agility World Conference

The call for speakers for the Enterprise Agility World Conference 2022 will open on May 1. It’s the world’s only conference on science, organizational change, and enterprise agility.

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Last year we expected about 200 attendees and 800 showed up! EAWC will take place virtually on November 5 and 6 and will bring together neuroscientists, organizational psychologists, Agile coaches, and many other professionals working on new theories and practices for organizations.

Visit to apply and share the link with your network!

Ready to Invest in Building a Resilient Organization?

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I’m pleased to announce that we’ll continue our Enterprise Agility Foundations Training around the world in May and June. Join the leading institution providing leaders, managers, and change consultants with new opportunities to grow their careers. Talk to one of our Certified Partners now and start moving in a new direction.

Sandip Rananavare, Asia Pacific, Certified EA Leadership (I), April 30th 

Rose Restrepo, Latin America, Certified Change Consultant, May 5th

Johana Chuquino and Daniela Imaña, Latin America, Certified Change Consultant, May 7th

Prasad Kamath, India and Asia, Certified Change Consultant, May 14th

Walter Shraiber, Latin America, Certified EA Leadership (I), May 16th

Greg Pitcher PK Savy, Asia Pacific, Certified Change Consultant, May 26th

Prasad Kamath, India and Asia, Certified EA Leadership (I), June 18th


Is ‘Information Fatigue Syndrome’ Undermining Your Cognitive Capacity and Your Organisations Effectiveness?

 By Neuroscientist Delia McCabe

Yes, we do live in a knowledge economy, so information is our commodity, but does too much information impact our capacity to use our brains effectively? And can it be undermining our organisational success?

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David Lewis, PhD, a British psychologist, and author of ‘Information Overload: Practical Strategies for Surviving in Today’s Workplace, coined the term ‘Information Fatigue Syndrome’ nearly two decades ago. Today other researchers speak about ‘Information Stress’ or ‘Information Overwhelm.’

There’s even a term, ‘infobesity,’ to describe this ‘unrelenting exposure to new information.’ All this information may be of use to us, but may also be superfluous to our life generally, and to our work specifically. It’s also very likely making us less effective in whatever we’re pursuing, rather than more so.

It was estimated two decades ago that the amount of printed information doubled every five years, while today some experts suggest all knowledge is doubling every 12 hours. From a historical perspective, in 1900 human knowledge doubled every 100 years, while by 1945 the rate was up to every 25 years.

Some experts suggest all knowledge is doubling every 12 hours, and the average professional, spends 28% of their day reading and answering emails

It’s rather more complex to work out how quickly it’s doubling today, as so much of our information is generated, used, and stored electronically.

However, according to a McKinsey report, the average professional spends 28% of their day reading and answering emails, so on a personal level, we’re immersed in it daily.

Individuals are also being bombarded, or exposed, whichever term you prefer, with information from other information platforms, with the current estimates of information generated via social media showing 500 million tweets per day, 4 million gigabytes of Facebook data, 65 billion WhatsApp messages, and 720 000 hours of new content shared daily via YouTube.

Optimal decision-making cannot occur in an environment where individuals feel overwhelmed by too much information

We used to see information as a valuable resource, but Lewis states that ‘uncontrolled, unorganized, and excessive information can hinder learning, decision making, and well-being.’ Leaders must acknowledge that optimal decision-making cannot occur in an environment where individuals feel overwhelmed by too much information, regardless of the source.

But WHY does ‘information overload’ cause distress?

Anything that leaves us feeling overwhelmed, and ‘time poor,’ or that we’ll be left behind if we don’t know something, leaves us feeling a sense of negative stress, also known as dis-stress. This is the opposite of good stress, also called eustress. In a state of distress, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) steps in, which leads to elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, and digestive challenges. 

And muscular aches and pains aren’t just from hunching over our computers to read/scan more, but also because our body doesn’t relax enough via our rest and digest, anti-stress, parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).

What about our eyes? Ever discussed the best eye drops for tired eyes? When our SNS is on, our vision narrows, and we don’t blink. We can’t consciously stop this from happening any more than we could do so if a tiger was chasing us.

What’s happening at a deeper, COGNITIVE level?

When our SNS is ‘on’ we find it difficult to concentrate because our brain is telling our body to focus on physical survival. When we have too much information at hand it can be more difficult to make decisions as we have more factors to consider. In some instances, this is of benefit to the decision-making process, but may not always be the case.

It has been suggested that some people experience ‘analysis paralysis,’ wherein making any decision becomes too challenging due to too many choices being available.

Some people experience a shortened attention span as they seldom spend long enough on deep, focused attention, rather skipping ahead to new information. Over time this becomes a habit, undermining the brain’s capacity for deep focus and concentration.

Selective attention’ is the term used to describe the process of focussing our attention on what we perceive as relevant while ignoring other stimuli that are also present. This cognitive juggling act continues without conscious awareness.

It isn’t surprising that people who feel ‘‘information overwhelm’’ will be more likely to experience sleep difficulties. This leads to further cognitive deficits.

It isn’t surprising that people who feel ‘‘information overwhelm’’ will be more likely to experience sleep difficulties.

Consider too that every decision to either read or not, any information, uses neural energy, as does selective attention, along with decisions about what to do with the information generated and/or gathered. Neural energy depletion due to ongoing decision-making is termed ‘decision fatigue.

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The most sophisticated part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), is the major player in decision-making. Among many other complex activities, it must sift through information, examine, and weigh this information against what we’ve encountered in the past, via our memories, skills, and knowledge, and attempt to plan for, or predict the future, based on this information.  

This is a complex, sophisticated cognitive undertaking, and an ongoing challenge with increasing amounts of, and increasingly complex information.

The complexity that underpins PFC activity requires extensive neural energy—it is the most energy-demanding and nutritionally expensive part of the brain. Although the brain uses 25%+ of the total glucose we generate from the carbohydrates we consume, the PFC, which is less than 10% of total brain volume, uses upwards of 25% of that amount.

Many decisions are made using new information, so there is a lack of automatic, habitual neural activity, which explains its ‘high energy’ demand. In other words, it can’t rely on habitual responses, which naturally save energy.

Due to its increased demand for energy, the PFC will be unable to function optimally when its supply of energy is curtailed. This can occur due to both a lack of energy via glucose depletion and/or nutrient deficiencies that impact neurotransmitter activity.

And more information simply makes its job harder—and increases its requirements for energy and nutrients. Research shows that decision fatigue results in either no decision being made, or a habitual, or judged as ‘safe’ decision, which can be referred to as the ‘two-option decision strategy.

In addition, as the Prefrontal Cortex gets tired, it becomes what we call a ‘cognitive miser.’ It will start evaluating factors related to the decision it needs to make based on only one dimension.

In addition, as the PFC gets tired, it becomes what we call a ‘cognitive miser.’ It will start evaluating factors related to the decision it needs to make based on only one dimension, versus a few, concurrently. Take shopping when cognitively tired as an example. We’d only make a purchase decision based on price, versus also considering suitability, quality, warranty, etc.

Furthermore, many decisions require the need for compromises, or ‘trade-offs.’ These types of decisions require challenging and complex cognitive gymnastics, with appraisals of information, re-appraisals, and comparisons.

When the PFC gets tired, we become ‘cognitive misers,’ and revert to the two-option strategy as described above.

It is for this reason that we are advised to do our most energy-intensive, creative thinking early in the day before our neural energy runs out, and leave rote, simple cognitive tasks for later in the day when the same amount of neural energy isn’t required.

The truth is that we can run out of neural energy to fuel optimal PFC activity early versus later in the day. The brain’s capacity to make good decisions is therefore compromised by ‘information overwhelm.’  

So, what are we meant to DO?

From an organisational perspective, it may be necessary to better structure organisational information in a variety of ways:

  1. Provide information to employees who require it, not to everyone. This can be accomplished via digital technology and via scrupulous use of email correspondence to only those people who need the information.  
  2. A central repository of easy-to-access and organised organisational information can be a useful tool if it prevents time-consuming searches through vast quantities of information. Such a repository can also be used to share pertinent, targeted, and useful organisational news preventing superfluous emails.
  3. Productivity apps may reduce email overload, but they can also mean more dispersed data. It may be necessary to filter these apps through a central organisational access platform.
  4. Teach employees how to limit unnecessary communication, for example, only communicating with others via one platform so information is only sent once.
  5. Practice and teach ‘information triage’ whereby a communication is only dealt with once.
  6. Before pressing ‘send’ on an email message ask yourself if the message is beneficial or necessary.
  7. Notifications can be set to control incoming information alerts. This not only reduces a sense of overwhelms but also reduces distractions. Keep in mind that neural energy is also required to decide not to open an email.
  8. We all know that multi-tasking is a myth, so the juggling and/or attention-swopping that comes with information overload uses neural energy.
  9. Teach staff to use their computer as a second brain, to store information they don’t need right now, versus working their way through it. Clever information storage strategies help our real brain from feeling overwhelmed and relegate information we may or may not need later to a place where we know it’s safe. Research suggests that knowing the information we may need is stored safely can reduce stress.

In-person communication is superior to digital/video communication and may promote the generation of ideas and problem-solving more effectively than the latter due to the way humans process information and pick up on non-verbal cues in-person. This can reduce the desire and/or need to take notes and promote natural information absorption—which reduces the need to manage notes i.e. more information.

From a personal perspective, there are several simple-to-action strategies that can reduce the sense of ‘information overwhelm:

  • Discipline yourself to turn off your phone at designated times, and watch TV wisely, which includes the news.
  • Try a ‘digital-free’ day once a week, or while on vacation for most of the day. 
  • Unsubscribe to emails that serve no purpose or store them in a safe place for future reference. 

Work away from your computer—and phone—for regular periods during the day and/or week. This naturally limits your exposure to new information.  

  • Search for information online using one search engine and avoid going down rabbit holes where you’re faced with more information. 
  • Feed your brain optimally to ensure it’s functioning optimally.

In conclusion, we can use our brain to consciously manage its capacity and output, thereby maximising its efficiency. This impacts our cognitive capacity personally and can impact the productivity of the businesses we work in and lead. After all, our decisions have long-reaching effects on both levels don’t they?

As David Lewis said, ‘Knowledge is power but information isn’t,’ while William James said ‘Wisdom is the art of knowing what to overlook.

From Enterprise Agility University, we hope you found our scientific newsletter useful, and we’ll see you next week.

–> References

Arnsten A.F.T. Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2009; 10960:410-422.

Gonen-Yaacovi, G, et al. Rostral and caudal prefrontal contribution to creativity: a meta-analysis of functional imaging data. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2013; 7(465).

Holton, A., & Chyi, H. (2012) News and the Overloaded Consumer: Factors Influencing Information Overload Among News Consumers. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking; 15(11): 619-624.

Lenni, P. The cost of cortical computation. Curr Biol. 2003; 13(6): 493-7.

Vartanian, O, et al. The Creative Brain Under Stress: Considerations for Performance in Extreme Environments. Front Psychol. 2020; 11: 585969.

Misra, S., & Stokols, D. (2012) Psychological and Health Outcomes of Perceived Information Overload. Environment and Behavior, 44(6), 737–759.

White, M.H and Dorman, S.M. (2000) Confronting Information Overload. Medicine. Journal of School Health; 70: 160. Cited 22 April 2022;rgn=main Cited 20 April 2022 Cited 19 April 2022

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