Knowledge Burnout and Information Overload

Information overload

Knowledge Burnout and Information Overload

Last week on a writers’ forum I subscribe to, an author posted to ask other members how they manage to keep up with all the articles and blog posts about craft and business that they want to read. She said she barely had enough time to write and revise her own projects she’s working on, and felt overwhelmed by also trying to find time for the informational/educational posts that also feel essential to growing her writing career.  

An author posted a similar question to Jane Friedman’s Ask the Editor column last month, saying her in-box was filled with advice she can’t possibly find time to read, and that she felt it was distracting her focus and time for actual writing.

I’m hearing a lot of author chatter about overwhelm and overload lately, and it’s understandable.

We’re living in a time of vast information abundance. The internet has brought news to our in-boxes from every corner of the world constantly. Social media has provided a steady stream of updates and info from friends, acquaintances, and people we follow.

Specific to our field, the explosion of indie and small-press publishing has resulted in a slew of experts hanging out their shingle—and attendant expert forums offering information about every element of craft and business.

For those of us who are knowledge junkies and love our craft, it may feel like a Mecca. Anything you want to know about our field, bam, it’s right there at the end of a search tag. Actually you don’t even have to trouble yourself touching the keys to create a search: One click of a button on a signup sheet and you can have your favorite writing outlets and blogs send posts right to your in-box, often on the daily. Heck, now you can talk to your damned computer like it’s a buddy and ask it anything under the sun, craft related or not, and AI will spit back at you a vast array of information culled (or let’s say appropriated without compensation) from countless millions of articles.

Read more: “AI Is Stealing Artists’ Work—What Can Writers Do About It?”

Writers are trapped under an avalanche of information and we are not okay, y’all.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Years ago my mom dropped me off for an otherwise aimless summer day at the main branch of our central library for the first time. She thought she was doing a wonderful thing for her voracious-reader kid who couldn’t get enough books, and sure enough I came out with a stack of them as high as they would allow me to check out. But when I got in the car my mood wasn’t quite what my mother expected.

“What’s wrong?” she asked at my crestfallen demeanor.

“I’ll never be able to read all of those books,” I told her sadly, picturing the towering shelves.

Even as an eight-year-old I understood that there was more knowledge in the world than I would ever be able to consume, and I entered into my very first tiny little existential depression.

We’re living in a time of vast abundance of knowledge and information that seems like it should make our lives fuller and richer and help us grow. And of course it can.

But lately I’m seeing evidence of a whole lot of writers feeling like that little overwhelmed eight-year-old I used to be, daunted by trying to do the impossible and Hoover up all the information available as if we’re ChatGPT uploading countless gigabytes of (largely unpaid-for, misappropriated) IP into our brains.

The Backlash of Information Overload

The desire to learn and hone our craft is an understandable one. We’re in this field because we love it, and if we love it we want to get better and better at it to take us closer to whatever our goals for our writing careers may be.

And from the time we’re born, it’s inculcated in us that the way you get better at something is to be taught. We have to be taught how to latch on to our mom to get food; how to propel ourselves in space using our four limbs, and then later just two of them; how to stop peeing and pooping ourselves.

Sometimes you may fall victim to what’s often called analysis paralysis, where your efforts stall out entirely because you’re so overwhelmed by input that you fear or don’t know how to actually move forward and write. So much of your time and energy is spent learning that you’re not actually doing.

We are taught language and communication. We go to school and we’re taught reading, writing, and arithmetic. If we want to learn any extracurriculars, like music or sports or debate, we’re taught how to do that too. When we enter the workforce, we’re taught how to do the jobs we were hired for.

So of course our instinct when we want to become better writers is to seek out teaching—the more the better.

But there’s a backlash to that. Often it seems that the more you study, the more you may feel entangled by what initially felt natural to you. You may start questioning and second-guessing whether you’re doing it right, getting wrapped around the axle. You may try to faithfully follow the tenets you’ve been taught and strip the life and originality out of your writing.

Read more: “The Dunning-Kruger Effect—Or, Dealing with Author Despair Syndrome

Sometimes you may fall victim to what’s often called analysis paralysis, where your efforts stall out entirely because you’re so overwhelmed by input that you fear or don’t know how to actually move forward and write. So much of your time and energy is spent learning that you’re not actually doing.

And yet still we keep lapping up more. It’s like we have information and knowledge FOMO.

Overcoming Overwhelm

It’s a strange thing: As Jane Friedman says in her excellent answer to the author who asked her how to combat information overload,  I am one of the purveyors of that information, so it may seem disingenuous for me to suggest limiting your intake of it. But as an editor I have always said that if I am doing my job right an author may need me less and less, and I think that’s true of teaching as well.

It’s healthy to always be open to new information. To be willing to reconsider, rethink, and grow. I’ve been working in this field for 30 years and I still learn more about my craft almost every day.

But mostly I’m just doing it. And a lot of what I’m learning comes from that doing of it—hands-on, direct, and personalized.

Once you learn how to walk, or ride a bike, or play the flute, burying yourself in books and classes about how to do it isn’t going to make you better. Periodically you may need more education to help you reach a new level of competence or overcome a specific challenge. But you’ve already got your foundation, and it’s your job to build on it by doing the thing, over and over and over, learning from experience.

Read more: “’Leave Me Alone—I Know What I’m Doing’

Face the FOMO. You can’t possibly take in all the information that exists, much of it excellent, but much of it pedestrian and sometimes even downright bad or counterproductive. 

Read more: “Sorting Through Writing Advice: ‘Don’t, Can’t, Shouldn’t.’

Just like in your writing it can be easy to fall down a research rabbit hole and never actually write, don’t let yourself fall down the perpetual-student mine shaft and never actually bring any of the gold to the surface.

Just like in your writing it can be easy to fall down a research rabbit hole and never actually write, don’t let yourself fall down the perpetual-student mine shaft and never actually bring any of the gold to the surface.

You have to learn to discern—to be willing to let go of the idea of being able to take in endless information and use it effectively in your writing, and decide which and how much of these resources may be most helpful to you.

In the words of Ursula the sea witch, life’s full of tough choices, innit?

Here are some suggestions for how to make them:

  • Unsubscribe. Having piles of posts acting in your inbox just heightens the FOMO, feeling like an ever-growing to-do list you will never make any headway on. Take away that pressure and guilt and stress and start unsubscribing from some of the newsletters and blogs you may have signed up for, even including this one (though I’ll miss you desperately). Decide on a few you feel are most valuable for you or most resonate, and bravely remove yourself from the rest. You can always come back if or when you decide you want to.
  • Pinpoint. Drinking randomly from a fire hose of information about anything doesn’t yield mastery—it makes you a dilettante, with a shallow but broad layer of knowledge, rather than an expert with a more focused but deep and thorough understanding. When you need specific info about a specific challenge or speed bump in your work, go find it. But keep in mind that often the best way to learn to master your stuck places is to work through them, steadily and directly.
  • Regulate. As with any other field, set aside specific time you’ll dedicate to continuing education—which takes a backseat to your actual working time. Stick ruthlessly to whatever that allotted time is—don’t fall down the mine shaft and let yourself be pulled away from your main goal and the number-one way of learning your craft: doing it.
  • Multitask. My best information-intake time is often in the cracks of otherwise mindless activities where I can split my focus—listening to podcasts and interviews while doing household chores or gardening or walking the dogs, for instance, or reading posts and articles while blow-drying my hair. This feels to me like found bonus time. Or take back the time from mindless social-media scrolling.
  • Let go. But remember you don’t have to fill every spare moment with knowledge intake. Just as your characters do, we need time to digest and process what we take in, and to decide how the information may affect our thoughts and actions. Give yourself time to let the information percolate on a back burner. Remember the crucial importance and value of rest—for your work, and for your psyche.
Read more: “Give It a Rest

At the risk of contradicting this entire post, If you’d like to receive my blog in your in-box each week, click here.

42 Comments. Leave new

  • Excellent advice.

    Tiffany, yours is the only newsletter I subscribe to and I thoroughly look forward to your insights popping into my inbox. You understand and get writers and every week I know the time I spend reading your posts, is time well spent. Thank you x

  • Thank you, Tiffany, I thought it was only me who was feeling overwhelmed. And thank you for saying it’s ok to unsubscribe. I have found that you and Jane are my go-to experts yet I have a ton of other emails that come in everyday. So, I now will start unsubscribingvto the others!

  • This is the best of recent posts on this subject.

    We need a Marie Kondo for writers.

    Might that be you?

  • Katherine Caldwell
    November 9, 2023 1:52 pm

    I so needed to hear this right now. My inbox is so full of ‘resources’ that have little to no value – some just a thinly disguised attempt to pitch me paid workshops/courses. I am going to go unsubscribe from almost all of them, but I will definitely keep up with your newsletter – I always find something of value in your missives. Thank you for all the help you give writers!

  • Susan Specht Oram
    November 9, 2023 1:54 pm

    Thanks, Tiffany, for your wise (as always!) guidance. Part of FOMO for me is responding to incoming nuggets of info about writing and marketing books. But the best times are when I clear my mind and sit and let a story grow. You are right. I need to turn off the fire hose of information to still my mind and focus on writing!

    • There’s SO much out there, and the seductive promise is that if we take it all in, we’ll get whatever brass ring we long for–mastery of craft, marketing success, lucrative contracts. But the root of it all–and the piece only we can control–is our work itself. We have to honor it and make room for it. And thanks for the kind words!

  • Maria A Karamitsos
    November 9, 2023 2:04 pm

    Great piece! It’s so true. We’re bombarded with info. One thing I’ve learned is to pick your “experts”. If you follow too many, you’ll get conflicting info that sends you searching for more or causing anxiety. Pick a few experts and follow them. Done. You’re one of mine. 😉

    • I agree with that! Find the people whose approach resonates with you–and even then, cherry-pick the pieces that work for YOU and create your own approach for your work.

      Thank you for the compliment of being here. I’m always happy to see your name in the comments, and grateful for your sharing so many of my posts.

  • I created a separate email just for newsletters. Slowly but surely I figured out which newsletters actually made a difference for me and had those come to my regular email. It has worked pretty well so far. I probably need to cull some of the newsletters because they aren’t doing me any good. But maybe one day I’ll need them (FOMO)!

    • That’s such a great idea! Akin to saving deleted material in a discard file I always suggest in revision. Feeling as if the material is “there” if you ever need it can be a mental comfort–even if the truth is that you don’t and likely will never need to go back to it, or can search the topic online if you do. If it helps to have these posts saved to refer to someday, great–but putting them somewhere separate takes them out of your immediate sight and releases that constant pressure as they stack up. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Thank you for this much-needed post. My inbox is a constantly wagging finger. I hadn’t consciously labeled these unread newsletters as FOMO but it’s useful to do so. Also, it’s obvious when I look at the contents not only what I care most about but what worries me as well. Thanks again!

  • Thank you for this article, Tiffany. There’s so much information and advice and writing applications out there for writers that I’ve lost entire days diving down one rabbit hole after another. Which defeats the whole purpose of why I dove down them in the first place. I want to write a good story. Several, actually! Sadly, where writing refills my tank; constantly learning how to write good stories drains it. In no time, my tank is empty and I’m feeling bad about myself because I haven’t written a word… in days. Time to trust that I know enough, ram the earplugs in, and ignore the noise. Don’t worry; I’ll always listen to you. 😉

    • Phew, I get that–I do that with not just posts, but books…on a myriad of topics, not just writing. I always think I can “learn” myself into mastery of whatever topic I’m interested in, when so often in all areas, it’s firsthand experience and trial-and-error that makes knowledge a part of us. I have to remind myself to shut that sh** off and do the thing. 😀 Thanks for commenting–and I’m glad you’re sticking around, Cara!

  • Claudia Lynch
    November 9, 2023 5:29 pm

    OMG, I was just thinking about this! I’ve unsubscribed from all but the very few newsletters that offer content specifically relevant to my work, change the way I think about it, and inspire me to plant my butt in the chair. It was like clearing off my desk so I could see what was on it.

    • It’s stressful in the moment of “click,” but then it’s freeing, isn’t it? Like you can take a breath. And I often find it’s “out of sight, out of mind”–once those constant streams of input are shut off, I don’t usually miss them.

  • I love D. Liebhart’s idea of having a separate email inbox. That way you can sort and categorize newsletters with specific information and topics. I feel this information overload so keenly these days. The closer I get to a final draft in my WIP, the slower I write because every piece of advice I’ve ever read about writing rises to the top and there’s this cacophony of voices shouting at me to remember it all.

    • I love that too! Genius–like the discard file for cut material from our writing. You know it’s there so it’s less stressful…even though chances are great you’ll never look at it again. 🙂

      I do this with closet cleanouts–I have a hard time letting go of “perfectly good clothes,” as I always say (sounding like my mother…!), even if I am not wearing them anymore. So I have learned to put them in a spare closet–and if I forget about them and don’t go fetch any of them within a reasonable amount of time, I don’t even reconsider them again: I just bundle them into a donation pile.

      And you’re so right about the biggest backlash of information overload–it puts authors in analytical brain when they should be in creator brain, and shuts down the creative process. No one can write with the critic over their shoulder.

  • This is the perfect article for me right now. I have been on a year (actually more if I am honest) of taking far more information than I can ever collate and digest. I am overwhelmed, exhausted and non-productive in my writing. I only write when I get away from my normal environment or easy access to the internet. I need to be able disconnect and write freely, without wondering if I am doing things technically correct or if I am working towards developing a following enough, etc.,etc., etc. I need to get back to fun of writing and story telling!

    • Good for you! It’s funny how we can get so mired in educating ourselves and even KNOW that it’s hampering our creativity…and still keep doing it. Banging our heads against the same wall hoping for different results, as they say. I hope you’re able to turn it off, or at least down, and get back to writing and the joy of it.

  • Jane Glendinning
    November 10, 2023 2:01 am

    Your newsletter is the only one I read now. Listening to people ‘who know more’ I start feeling like I’ll never produce writing that measures up. Hearing you say, ‘forget the rules. Pay attention to if it works or not’ makes me want to keep going and brings back the joy in writing.
    Since making money as a writer is said to be difficult, people are trying to make a living selling their knowledge, or are just trying to build their platform. It reminds me of all of the expensive business seminars I attended before it became clear that most of the time those ‘experts’ were just saying to focus and work.

    • That’s a big compliment–thank you. And I think you’re right–the market got flooded with experts for a variety of reasons, and that’s where this fire hose of info is stemming from. I can’t tell yet if it’s a permanent shift in what the business looks like now, or one of countless cycles I’ve seen in our industry since I entered it 30-plus years ago. But meanwhile we can be our own gatekeepers of input and decide what and how much we let through.

  • Great article, Tiffany. As a student of Zen Buddhism, I’m always trying to reconcile my insatiable appetite for knowledge with Dogen Zenji’s admonition to “cease from erudition” and focus inward on myself (i.e. my writing). My hunger for information generally wins out, but at least I’m aware and working on it!

  • Thanks so much for this post. I have close to 150 educational writing emails that I plan to read….someday. They’re moved to an ever-growing “need to read” folder. Some date back a year. It is overwhelming! But as a beginning writer, I “know” they all contain valuable information for me.

    • I hyperventilated a little just reading that. 😉

      FWIW, I’d be pretty willing to bet that they don’t all contain valuable info you need. As with every industry, there are levels of efficacy. A lot of these types of articles are wonderful and helpful. But a fair number don’t really offer any new or deeper insight from what you may already know or have learned–as Jane says in her article I linked to, many are geared to writers who are earlier in the journey. And some of these articles, in my opinion anyway, offer what I consider useless or even counterproductive information.

      Not to mention that everything about this business is subjective, so not every bit of info or insight will speak to or work for every author. These days I tend to skim the titles to see if it’s even a topic that grabs me, and then the first few lines and/or headings to see if it’s going somewhere that seems fresh or unique to me. If not, I’m getting pretty ruthless about just clicking “delete.”

  • As soon as I saw “analysis paralysis” I knew I had to read this in order to break out of my “glue state” – caused by reading too much advice ! Thank you, Tiffany, for your review & advice. Thx to all the earlier commenters as well. I had a vague idea of what to do, now I will try to keep working at it & I’m sure I will soon be writing again.

    • You just blew my tiny mind–we’re in a meta Mobius loop now of reading advice about ignoring advice. 😀

      The best way to write is to write–at the risk of sounding flip. Don’t psyche yourself up to (or out of) it. Just sit down and start. James Clear, in Atomic Habits, has a technique that works really well for me: He calls it the Two-minute Rule, I think. Basically whatever you want to commit to, start by committing to do it for two minutes a day (or on whatever days you determine you will dedicate to it). Two minutes seems damned manageable and unintimidating–and I defy anyone to say they can’t find two spare minutes for something that’s important to them.

      Usually you wind up doing it longer than that–but even if you don’t, you’re forming the habit…and little by little you will deepen it. I hope it works for you, Peter!

  • This is such a timely post for me! I’ve been struggling with information overload and I really found value in your tips. One thing that I’ve started to do to help figure out which newsletters to unsubscribe to is pay attention to what I feel like when they pop into my inbox. If I’m like, “Yay, I can’t wait to read this!” I keep it. If I’m all, “Ugh, not another one, didn’t I just get one of these last month?” I delete. It seems like the decision should be easy, but I would always convince myself that the ones I didn’t want to read might contain that one golden nugget that would catapult me right to the top of the best sellers list, even though that was highly (100%) unlikely. Thanks for all the great advice!

    • I’m glad to hear that, Jamie–thanks for saying. I love your gut-level approach to culling the herd. What better indicator of which posts are actually helpful to us than that immediate atavistic reaction to seeing each one?

  • Garry LaFollette
    November 13, 2023 1:06 am

    As paradoxical as it no doubt is to address info overload by adding more information to the pile . . . couple books, ‘Scarcity Brain’ and ‘The Molecule of More’

    The desire for more and more information, like the desire for more of anything, is hardwired into our brains. Ditto the thought processes that drive FOMO. When we find ourselves thinking ‘this info may be what I need to elevate my writing and be a difference maker for me’ we’re reacting from a neurological place that was once critical for our survival as a species. Born of a time when each piece of knowledge / tool / material of life had the potential to be a difference maker for survival. Acting on the concept of ‘enough’ was once as deadly as it still is difficult.

    Another way of looking at it, none of us would be here now if one or two or three generations ago on a fateful night an ancestor had said, ‘I’ve had enough sex for the month, no need for more now.’ Life itself can be seen as the victory of passion over practicality. And each of us here has a passion for improving our writing.

    The price of loving something may be the ease with which we make space for more of it. But when it comes to reading about writing at the cost of time that could be spent writing, may we never be like the person who sits glued to The Weather Channel instead of going outside and making a snowman.

    • Ha! Love the snowman metaphor, Garry. And thanks for the book recommendations. I find it hard to take my own advice sometimes about sucking in more knowledge–but at least I think I try to keep it in perspective as more part of the fun for me, and not let it intrude on the time I dedicate to actually doing the things for which I feel that passion you mention.

      I do hope the thirst for knowledge is hardwired into our brains. Lately I worry that too many people seem content to default to hardened beliefs they may have held for some time, and not be open to learning new info or angles. I think that willingness to consider different perspectives and reevaluate what we think we know is key to our survival and evolution–and to a functioning society. (Which I worry we’re well on our way to not having…)

      Have you listened to the Re: Thinking podcast, with Adam Grant? It’s all about that idea, actually, from various angles, and it helps keep me questioning what I think I know, and open to learning new things. I have an upcoming blog post about that actually….

      Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

      • Garry LaFollette
        November 17, 2023 12:42 am

        I love Adam Grant’s work. The podcast and what I’ve read of his books. ‘Think Again’ with its emphasis on curiosity and the willingness to unlearn and relearn is especially fascinating. His most recent ‘Hidden Potential’ is on my TBR list along with way too much else. Looking forward to your upcoming post.

        There are times when beliefs are best treated with the same caution that is given a forgotten bowl of leftovers found in the back of the refrigerator. Pro tip; with Thanksgiving on the horizon, just because the squash casserole is delicious next Thursday, that doesn’t mean that if you happen across the last little bit of it a week later, you should dive in without a sniff test.

        A question I’d love to see asked of anyone running for political office is ‘tell us about a time when you changed your mind on something you once held dear. How did it happen, and what did you learn about your thought processes from it?’

        One of my favorite quotes; ‘It’s what you learn AFTER you know it all that counts’. Or to go in a different direction, the Victor Hugo quote that ‘there’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come’ can stand an addendum. ‘there’s nothing more toxic than an idea whose time has passed.’ Except maybe that aforementioned week old casserole.

        • SUCH a great point on changing your mind, Garry. I often think how John Kerry was excoriated for being a “flip-flopper,” or anyone who lets their thoughts grow and change, as if evolving in your thoughts is a cardinal betrayal of your beliefs, and unchanging rigidity the hallmark of leadership. I try to stay open to rethinking what I think I know…with varying success, of course, as it’s easy to devolve to our ruts. You might really enjoy Adam Grant’s podcasts, BTW, including his latest one, Re: Thinking. And I will check out his newest–I didn’t know it was out already!

          And thanks for the tip on the leftovers. 😉

  • Kimberley Hyatt
    November 15, 2023 4:56 pm

    So well put. This very topic has been on my mind for some time; I simply need to write more.
    Always well-written and/or incredibly on point, I enjoy your blogs, webinars and your book–which is one of the best I’ve read on writing and editing.
    Thank you.


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