The cognitive science of information overload and distraction

There is a simple reason for the frustrating experience of a lack of progress in one’s work. Let’s take the national politics of a superpower as an example. Let’s imagine that the election of a leader was determined by a popularity contest (except that the contest was set up in such a way that the power of the few was protected over the will of the populace as a way to avoid the tyranny of the majority). A capitalist democracy might tend to favour celebrity and wealth. Should the wealthy media celebrity and branded personality be inclined toward self-aggrandizement, the leader might continue the same strategy that put the individual in power to maintain the public’s attention. The performance might tend to be a distraction from the actual work of leading. For the populace, the entire system of attention-seeking approval is a distraction from participation in democratic citizenship and our work for the common good.

Miller’s Law

A concept from the field of cognitive psychology, Miller’s Law, would suggest that the tendency toward distraction that such a mode of communication could generate might conflict with the goal of getting things done.

Moreover, the human mind can remember ~7 bits of information when completing a task that requires cognitive effort. This is critical, because humans are constantly performing tasks, and trying to juggle various stimuli in the mind when doing so. One of the key concepts behind Miller’s Law is ‘chunking’, which basically means assembling various bits of information into a cohesive gestalt.

Pareto Principle

Another principle of cognitive psychology applies when the media diet of a population tends toward distraction.

We live in a world with an exponentially increasing amount of information. By not organizing it properly, or eliminating some completely, it ultimately degrades our ability to complete critical tasks for the purposes of survival (navigation/gaining income). That is why it’s so useful to omit items, products, and services from your life that aren’t giving a quality return on investment. This falls in line with the Pareto principle, the idea that 80% of your outcomes come from 20% of your investments. Are you juggling too many tasks per day to be efficient?


Distractions limit the ability to work at becoming our best as citizens, workers, and empathetic human beings. When we are performing at our best, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would describe this focused attention and activity as “flow.”

Flow is a word Mihaly coined to describe a state of concentration or ‘absorption’ with a specific task that humans ultimately find rewarding, pleasurable, and fulfilling. He describes it as an optimal state where we perform at our best and truly live ‘in the moment.’ One sure way to kill flow is by increasing distractions in the workplace.

If leaders have so distracted a population from the day-to-day work of getting things done, their failure becomes a living example of the cognitive psychology that, although they might like to discredit the science, will likely lead to a growing level of frustration, anger, and division that may be impossible to deny.

The solution is to move away from the attention economy and the politics of distraction. We can take back our attention, our time, our focus and our resources and invest them in what really matters.

Rebuild Capacity

Failure, whether perceived or real, is an opportunity to be uncomfortable and to rebuild. — Dr. Jennifer R. Cohen

To attain a state of flow will require the ability to limit the amount of stimuli in the work environment, to silence the distractions, and to concentrate one’s time, energy, resources and focus on a single specific, achievable task at each given moment. Habits then become skills to increase capacity to define goals, work productively, and achieve the vision of collaborating together to reimagine our social architecture and create a better world.