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We’ve all been there: You had to make six major decisions before lunch and felt completely overloaded with all the information coming at you. This information overload, or “infobesity” can cause stress or cause you to just shut down.

Infobesity is a term used to describe a situation when a person feels they’re experiencing information overload – exceeding their ability to process and manage information. When this happens, they’re unable to make decisions as effectively as they otherwise could.

It’s not uncommon for a person to have several things happening in their life at the same time, all sending information that requires some level of thinking and decision making. However, humans aren’t machines, and each has a limit as to how much they can process, whether the demands are coming from their personal life or work life.

With several life events, tasks and challenges running in our head and generating information, if that information is not dealt with it can accumulate. When too much is happening at once, a person can feel overwhelmed by all the information they’re trying to process. If they shut down or react while in this frame of mind it can negatively impact their decision making process. This increases the risk for mistakes or other types of consequences that might be avoidable if they had more mental space to make decisions.

This micro skill focuses on what we can do to create mental space by pausing before we take on additional commitments or make decisions when we feel pressured. Deliberately pausing can delay the urge to make fast decisions for the sole purpose of clearing out some information to make more mental space.

Awareness

We only have a certain amount of brain capacity. One mantra to consider is the notion that we can have a happier and more successful life by doing a few things well, rather than trying to do many things and ending up doing them poorly.

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Decisions about what we agree to do often define our risk profile for becoming overloaded by information that can increase our risk for making knee-jerk decisions that may not be in our own or others’ best interest.

For most, doing the work for five university courses in one term is a heavy load. Imagine if the university administration decided that students must take seven courses instead of five per term. This would be an example of giving a person too much information and having expectations that are too high. The consequence and number of students who would fail most likely would drastically increase due to the stress and pressure to fulfill this level of commitment.

One proactive step is to take an inventory of all our commitments to determine the risk for being over-committed and feeling overwhelmed. The goal of this step is to bring to our awareness all the things we’ve agreed to do, so we can evaluate how sustainable it is to keep up our current level of commitments.

Accountability

Most of us want to be successful in the things we agree to do, but we must decide how much we can handle. By having an inventory of our commitments we can reflect on our degree of risk for information overload. One blind spot for some people is consciously or unconsciously gambling that they’ll never be asked to do conflicting things at the same time. This is how they rationalize that they can be involved in many things at the same time. This line of thinking can result in cognitive dissonance, where they rationalize that they’re not over-committed.

One way to think about this risk potential is to consider whether every commitment you’ve made requires another 10 per cent effort and attention for a two-month period and whether it’s possible to handle this increase. People who have three to five commitments typically say yes, compared to a person who has eight to 10 commitments.

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Action

One way to reduce risk for over-committing and experiencing information overload is to add time before making decisions by pausing:

Before agreeing to take on any commitment – Pause and do an inventory of the potential consequences and the risk for making mistakes or not being able to follow through on this commitment to yourself and others. For example, when asked to do something that will require time and effort, simply say, “Let me think about and I’ll get back to you in a few days.”

Build in pause breaks before decision making – Before making an important decision, pause. This can help prevent buyer’s remorse. Pausing gives you space to collect all the best available facts. Unless you’re faced with a life-or-death decision, pausing allows cognitive brain time to ponder the “what ifs” more thoroughly. For example, it’s often wise to sleep on a harshly-worded e-mail you’ve written. Read it in the morning to determine if you still really want to send it.

·Take cues from your brain – When you feel overwhelmed and confused, take a pause. The tendency to speed up under pressure to get things done fast is not optimal. It may sound counter-intuitive, but the best thing to do when your mind is tired, overloaded or worried is to take a break from the activity. Often, a rest, sleep, walk, nutrition break, workout or recreational distraction can provide the brain time to create space and recharge in order to make the best and right decision.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto.

You can find all the stories in this series at tgam.ca/workplaceaward