Information overload is very common today. It can mean a constant, 24/7, flow of information. However, a rich and varied flow of “data” is an important part of being informed in our fast–paced, communication dependent world. We all spend time watching and listening and interacting with screens—email, blogs, TV, movies, videos and games on the internet, mp3 players. (And when we are interacting with other people we are often communicating through media—cell phones, Instant Messaging—not face to face.) All of these inputs can weigh on our ability to take in, or receive (the first part of the definition of listening) and adequately process and evaluate what we take in through our sensory channels. Too much sensory input is called information overload, and like multi–tasking, our ability to be effective listeners goes down the more we have to attend to at one time. Trying to do two things at the same time, such as email while listening to a lecture, significantly reduces the competence and effectiveness of each behavior (http://www.umich.edu/~bcalab/multitasking.html). The less alike the tasks are the less efficient we are. Other studies show that "The best thing you can do to improve your memory is to pay attention to the things you want to remember," said Russell Poldrack, UCLA associate professor of psychology at a National Academy of Sciences meeting (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/07/060726083302.htm).
Studies generally find that our listening efficiency and task efficiency both go down when we are interrupted by email, a cell phone call or any other interruption while we are trying to listen. The first part of the process of listening is sensing or reception, and if our attention is not focused (as suggested above) we will not be listening well.
Information overload can also occur if the messages we are listening to are technical in areas where we lack expertise, if there is too much information packed into a message, or if the information comes at us too fast—this could also cause listening apprehension and interfere with our ability to remember the message (see apprehension below). We should not ignore information that is technical. Rather we should prepare for speeches, or lectures which require a high level of expertise or specific knowledge. That is, reading the text and preparing before class will help us to listen and better understand and remember the content of a lecture. If a message is loaded with too much information that may also be the speaker’s lack of consideration for the audience’s ability to process information—each of us has limits, especially when the content is difficult or different from subject to which we usually listen. This too can be at least partially remedied by reading up on a topic before attending a lecture. If we are watching a presidential debate we should study up on the positions of each candidate so that we can listen for the differences.