In an interview by The Atlantic, David Allen shapes the concept of information overload in an interesting context:
Information overload is not the issue. If it were, you’d walk into the library and die. As soon as you connected to the Web, you’d just explode.
In fact, the most information-rich place in the world is the most relaxing: it’s called nature. It has more varied horizons, more detail, more input of all sorts. As a matter of fact, if you want to go crazy, get rid of all your information: it’s called sensory deprivation.
The thing about nature is, it’s information rich, but the meaningful things in nature are relatively few—berries, bears and snakes, thunderstorms, maybe poison oak. There are only a few things in nature that force me to change behavior or make a decision. The problem with e-mail is that it’s not just information; it’s the need for potential action. It’s the berries and snakes and bears, but they’re embedded, and you don’t know what’s in each one.
It’s natural for us to subconsciously recognize that the sound of leaves rustling is caused by the wind and isn’t a reason to panic. We don’t have to capture that, process it, and figure out what to do about it. But he’s saying that there are so many inputs now that aren’t natural and our brains haven’t figured out how to subconsciously process what we have to do as information workers.
David Allen teaches frameworks to process these signals but we need to take it upon ourselves to make the inputs as natural as possible. You need to do a better job of knowing what kind of information is important to you—that a thunderstorm is rolling in—so you can convert it from something that will just make you informed to something that will make you smarter.