If you’re reading this on your computer, take a quick look at your tabs.
How many do you have open? Are there so many squished together that you can’t even read their titles anymore?
Do you ever find the same page open in more than one tab, because you forgot it was already up? Or worse – have you ever known it was already up, but still found it easier to just open it in a new tab instead of sorting through the mess you had created?
The chaotic state of our computer screens is one sign of information overload. We try to keep all the data at our fingertips . . . and it slips from our grasp.
How can we tame the chaos, organize our attention, and regain mental clarity?
This post takes a look at the problem and offers one concrete step forward toward defeating information overload.
We are guinea pigs in a vast experiment
By the latest count, humans create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day. If each of those bytes were a penny, you could build a solid stack the size of the Empire State Building — about 500,000 times.
That number alone — 2.5 quintillion — already overloads my brain. And it’s growing exponentially every year.
The sheer scale of this experiment is unprecedented. Those of us living through this moment suddenly have access to enormous amounts of social connection, answers, and knowledge.
But it’s also making us anxious. All these emails, texts, and newsfeeds inject us with a steady supply of cortisol, the stress hormone.
And it affects our minds in other ways too. In an ironic twist, more information can cause us to make stupider decisions. When we’re living amid data smog, our decision quality takes a nose-dive.
What’s a knowledge worker to do?
Does that mean that ignorance is decision-making bliss? Should we ditch the internet and start looking for answers again in the few dusty legal books still sitting in our office? Should we ignore most of the updates we hear from our clients?
Obviously not. We need that data — now more than ever. It’s not the information’s fault: it’s how we ingest it.
As an example: think about taking a walk through a green, natural space. On this walk, we take in a lot of information — what do these plants and birds look like, how does this grass feel under my feet, how is my body responding to this movement? But that form of data actually jives with our brains. Our minds are sharpened. We learn better and create stronger memories. And we feel soothed instead of stressed.
That all changes when we swap the park for a chaotic computer screen. All those zeros and ones carry unlimited amounts of information, but they can’t quite mimic the natural flow of data our brains are used to. They trigger stress reactions instead of harmony (and give us unhealthy doses of blue light to boot).
We have a long way to go before practicing law feels like a walk in the park, but there are many ways we can calm the chaos of information swirling around us. Some of this requires discipline and intentionality. But legal technology can also help.
Information overload is organization underload
Good litigators already understand how to fight information overload in one area of their work: once they discover evidence to use in their cases, the job is actually just beginning. The real task is finding the right way to present that evidence.
They recognize there is a wide chasm between raw information and meaning. One useful metaphor is the ‘signal-to-noise’ ratio used by scientists. As knowledge workers, our goal is to amplify the signal and hush the noise. Unfortunately, these same talented litigators rarely have a handle on all the other data they juggle, regarding the growth and well-being of their practice.
But the principle stands: the problem isn’t the information — it’s that our filters have failed.
So how can we practice good information hygiene instead?
There are many answers to this. There are smarter reports to analyze our data, more intuitive task lists, and better communication tools. There are also deeper cultural behaviors that can create an anti-interruption work zone, and things like law firm automation and client portals can help deal with workplace chaos.
But we can begin with one of the latest features coming out of Filevine: Collection Views.
Filevine has always offered Collection Sections as part of its case management suite. Now, these sections allow you to adjust how you see the data you’ve gathered. This adjustment can radically reduce information overload for attorneys.
What’s a Collection Section? It’s a space to store any series of information. These can be medical records, evidence tables, witness lists, or payment data. Any set of similar information can be organized and archived in a Collection Section — along with any relevant documents.
Just keeping everything in the right place helps to quell anxiety and stabilize your caseload. But now you have more tools to improve how you see and analyze that information.
You can now choose from three different display types.
- Item View shows you all the items in that collection and all the data they contain.
- Expanded Item View collapses lists, allowing you to press ‘see more’ to display the full entry.
- And Table View gives you a bird’s-eye view of your data, with the most relevant information on display first
And the customization goes deeper, as you design what fields you gather and whether they’re hidden or shown. Your preferred viewing options will be applied to all projects of that type.
For example, imagine a personal injury attorney. She has a client with broken bones and a TBI. This means reams of medical information: diagnoses, treatments, bills, etc. So the attorney sets up a Medical Records section where all this data can be organized and stored.
Perhaps the attorney wants this section to show an overview of medical bill amounts by provider, along with the medical record status. She can prioritize these on her Table View. Now, when she enters this section, she isn’t bombarded by each shred of information she’s gleaned: instead, she sees a concise run-down of the most relevant info — with the opportunity to dive deeper into any specific record she needs.
The same principle holds for attorneys of other practice areas, whether it’s estate planners who track their payments or criminal defense lawyers keeping sections of their hearing details.
The bottom line is about shaping how data comes to you, trimming out the noise and keeping the meaning. Even small adjustments with your everyday data intake can be a game-changer. As you escape information overload, you’re empowered to make your best decisions.
See our help center for more detailed explanations of this latest feature roll-out.
A worry old as Gutenberg
In 1755, French philosopher Denis Diderot worried that new technology allowed more books to be printed than ever before. He thought the sheer volume of them would eventually make books irrelevant:
“As long as the centuries continue to unfold, the number of books will grow continually, and one can predict that a time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the direct study of the whole universe. It will be almost as convenient to search for some bit of truth concealed in nature as it will be to find it hidden away in an immense multitude of bound volumes. ”
Long before texts and tweets and Facebook newsfeeds, Diderot was anxious about Information Overload.
What Diderot didn’t imagine is that we wiley humans wouldn’t just write more books — we would also develop technology that would help make meaning of all this information. We created card catalogs and shelving systems.
Now we have those 2.5 quintillion daily bytes of data — but we haven’t given up on information like Diderot predicted. That’s because some wise minds have dedicated themselves to making information meaningful and accessible. We don’t have to browse a library: we google it, and rely on powerful algorithms to find our answers.
As information grows in sheer volume and in its ability to reach us from every side, Diderot’s caution remains. It will take discipline, care, and the adoption of the right technology to keep ourselves clear-sighted amid the smog of data.
But those who can wrangle the chaos can find great rewards.