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Digital Overload – defeating the stimulus satiation

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An observation from everyday life (Torsten Katthöfer)

“I own a Smartwatch. Such a smart watch, which measures the air pressure and my pulse, tells me everything about my trip while riding my racing bike and which also looks incredibly chic and modern.

Originally I bought the Smartwatch for weather forecasting and as a sporty companion, but I soon realized that it could also alert me. First as an alarm clock, then when I call my smartphone, then when I have appointments due, WhatsApp and Teams messages, Twitter posts and Facebook messages. So far, so practical. I don’t miss a thing.

At some point, during my Corona summer vacation preparations, I found myself simply pushing away every incoming message WITHOUT looking at it, possibly out of motor habit.

In fact, my faithful companion sought my attention every 10 minutes. And she got it too, at least a head pressure full of attention. The minimum. Something like a Tamagotchi (if anyone still knows what it is, it is a senseless waste of life par excellence).

During my sailing vacation I prescribed myself (only) one week of “digital detox”. Since I wanted to use my Smartwatch for the original benefit aspects, namely barometric observation of the weather and recording of covered distances, I sanctioned my smartphone in the notifications. Only notifications that I had classified as important remained. To make a long story short: I did not miss anything and was not disturbed.

I’ve been back to my (mobile) desk from vacation for a long time and haven’t changed the notification settings at all. My Smartwatch leaves me alone, unless it is important. I no longer miss anything. And I don’t hum all the time.”


Digital Overload?

In this article, we do not want to highlight the advantages of digital working methods, but rather the digital overload – the cognitive overload of the users of digital media – and the consequences of this for their daily work. An aspect that can undoubtedly turn out to be the black Peter in the New Work quartet.

A possible definition

The phenomenon of Digital Overload has been known in science for a long time. Jones, Ravid & Rafaeli (2004), for example, distinguish between different aspects that play a role in communication with digital media. On the one hand, so-called conversational overload can occur, i.e. when a large amount of messages arrives and one can no longer adequately respond to them. On the other hand, so-called information entropy can occur when the content of incoming information can no longer be prioritized according to importance.

Ruthkowski & Saunders (2010) take up similar aspects in their definition. They describe an emotional and cognitive overload with information technology as a negative consequence resulting from the use of digital technologies. The problem is to process the amount of information offered by technology.

In both studies, a feeling of cognitive overload with the amount of information that comes rushing in is described. The amount of information is simply too large to fit adequately through the eye of the needle of human perception.

Consequences of Digital Overload

If contents can no longer be prioritized according to their importance, the urgency and invasiveness of the notification signal determines the relevance of a piece of information in case of doubt. There is no question that this has a negative effect on work behavior. But what can behavioral patterns look like that help reduce the feeling of digital overload?

Multitasking and the attempt to do several tasks in parallel seems to be a good approach in theory. Multitasking may also work if there are smaller tasks that need to be done. But the reality is unfortunately a different one. In a working world where digital media are used for communication, work content is often too complex to simply “work through”. They require a greater depth of thought than can be achieved with multitasking. Tasks that require synchronous exchange with other people are also completely unsuitable for multitasking.  

Ignoring or completely switching off incoming messages does help to reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed. However, this behavior can have negative consequences if really important messages with an acute need for action arrive and are simply overlooked.

Digital Detox, like the priority-based setting of the Smartwatch described above, could be a good solution for dealing with Digital Overload. What this prioritization could look like then is up to each person to decide for themselves. At the same time, we can help to stem the flood of information ourselves. As a matter of principle, you should also ask yourself before every message sent whether it is really necessary. Modern collaboration tools also offer the option of working with status messages or setting a “busy” status. In this way, others know when their counterpart has time to react.

Conclusion: One competence in the digital working world is the classification of messages according to their importance. At the same time, the excessive demands on recipients can be reduced if their sensitivities (for example, their status messages) are taken into account. Then the Smartwatch could go on vacation without information sanctions. Because the status is set to “Absent” and the status message says “On vacation at sea in July”. And which is respected by everyone.


Cover picture: Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

Literature: Rutkowski, A., & Saunders, C. (2010). Growing Pains with Information Overload. Computer, 94-96. doi: 10.1109/MC.2010.171

Jones, Q., Ravid, G., & Rafaeli, S. (2004). Information Overload and the Message Dynamics of Online Interaction Spaces: A Theoretical Model and Empirical Exploration. Information Systems Research, 15(2), 194-210

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