Stuffocation and Information Overload

In his latest book, James Wallman, coins the term ‘stuffocation’ to reflect that many people’s lives are being suffocated by having too much stuff.  This is similar to the way in which too much information stifles the ability to make decisions.  Stuffocation and information overload are both founded on the same psychological principles and invoke feelings of being overwhelmed.

The Problem of Stuffocation

Wallman asserts that many of us have many more possessions than we will ever need and suggests that this need is driven by the same psychological needs that underpin obesity.  Our inbuilt impulses have not yet adapted to the abundance of food and cheap consumer items that are now available to us. Instead we are driven to take advantage of special offers and store things just-in-case they may be of use one day.  But this has led to homes being crammed full of unused and discarded possessions that drain our energy and lead to inertia.

The Problem of Information Overload

Every day we are bombarded with information from all directions by information technology.  Email, social media, Rich Site Summary feeds (RSS), text messages, instant messages and phone calls, compete with television, radio and the Internet to provide us with information – not forgetting of course the traditional newspaper, magazines and mail too.  Toffler (1970) predicted that the volume of information would become so excessive that it would not be possible to act on the information and make timely decisions.  The daily volume of information with which we are confronted can be overwhelming and also leads to inertia.

Overcoming Stuffocation

The solution to overcoming stuffocation is a two step process. First, get rid of the possessions that you do not use. Second, do not allow any new possessions to take their place.  Simple in theory, but more difficult in practice because of the often irrational value with which we assign to the innominate object, embroiled with memories.  We convince ourselves that we might need the item one day but know that one day is unlikely to arrive.  We also convince ourselves that we are collectors not hoarders.  The difference between hoarding and collecting is discussed here

Approaches to Reduce Information Overload

Typical approaches to reduce information overload focus on reducing the quantity of poor quality information that we receive. This includes actions such as more clearly defining the information we need, improving information search criteria, personalizing information and eliminating regular reporting.  These actions focus on step two of overcoming stuffocation, reducing the information that comes to us, but what about step one?

The process of getting rid of the possessions that we really do not need forces us to confront why we have the items, and justify why we should keep them.  Getting rid of unwanted information forces us to:

  • Confront the paper mountain of unread magazines and admit that we will never read them.
  • Empty our email boxes and admit that we are never going to reply to messages over a month old.
  • Delete multiple copies of draft reports that are no longer needed.
  • Delete the out of date copies of procedures and policies stored on local hard drives.

We also need to consider why we kept this information in the first place.  As with possessions, the driving force is often just in case we might need the information one day.  But there is also another common reason.  When we have found information, there is a basic instinct to keep it because we might not be able to find it again.  The centralized IT systems in organizations that aim to provide the one common source of accurate information can too often be the cause of information hoarding.  It was so difficult to find the information that when we did find the information, we kept a local copy of the information to avoid the difficulty of finding the information again.  This hoarding behaviour results in multiple copies of out of date information being stored throughout the organization, which the centralized systems aimed to avoid.

Overcoming Information Overload

Stuffocation and information overload prevent us from living and working effectively.  Both stuffocation and information overload require us to take action and confront the reasons why we are hoarding possessions and hoarding information.  Hoarding information inhibits our ability to act on information and contributes to the overwhelming feeling of information overload.  Overcoming information overload requires actions to be taken at both the organization level and the individual level.  At the organization level, effective information management is needed to ensure the organization’s information systems enable us to easily access the information we need when we need it so that we do not feel the need to store local copies.  At the individual level we need to think about what information we really need.  Stuffocation and information overload both require us to be honest with ourselves about our needs, admit that ‘one day’ is unlikely to come and to overcome the just-in-case behaviour.


Further Reading:

The causes of information overload and approaches to overcome information overload are discussed in chapter 7.


Please use the following to reference this blog post in your own work:

Cox, S. A., (2015), ‘Stuffocation and Information Overload’,30 January February 2015,, [Date accessed: dd:mm:yy]

© 2014 Sharon A Cox