If a pile of unread newspapers gives you a guilt pang and an overflowing in-tray brings on a panic attack, take heart - help may be at hand.
An author who specializes in organizing information in handbooks and directories says he has now come up with a treatment for "information anxiety," described as a stress syndrome resulting from a surfeit of data.Richard Saul Wurman, designer of easy-to-use telephone directories and travel guides, suggests how to cope with the 20th century scourge of data overload in his new book, "Information Anxiety."
Many of us display symptoms of the malady, he says, when we feel guilty about not reading enough, are too ashamed to admit ignorance of the Dow Jones industrial average or the Middle East situation, and remember little and understand even less of what we read.
In an interview with Reuters, Wurman, 53, said his book is a response to the growing burden of keeping up to date with developments at work and in the world at large.
He says the pressure to be informed can lead to obsessive but ineffective reading, feelings of inadequacy, and an inability to admit what we don't know.
His advice is to cast off guilt feelings and get control of necessary data. To that end the book suggests a "low-fat information diet" - an individually designed program whereby the maximum data may be digested with minimum effort.
The business world has shown a particular interest in the book because it appeals to managers desperate to cut a swath through the data on their desks, Wurman said.
It has received glowing praise from several businessmen, including John Sculley, chairman of Apple Computer Inc., who called it "the most important tool for understanding information in years."
Stephanie Kravec, a psychotherapist specializing in compulsive disorders, said she had come across a number of people with problems similar to those described by Wurman.
"Students, business people, brokers - anyone in a competitive environment where data is important is at risk," said Kravec, who is a consultant to the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health in New York.
Wurman's talent for data-sorting, which has earned him the nicknames "data doctor" and "clutter-buster," has also turned him from a budding architect into a successful entrepreneur.
His information organization firm, The Understanding Business, which produces directories and maps, and guidebook publisher ACCESS Press Ltd. are both flourishing.
He has redesigned the California Yellow Pages directory and is now preparing to unveil a guide to understanding the Wall Street Journal.
Wurman describes his new book as a guide for disoriented victims of the "information explosion" - the proliferation of data products and services seen this century.
"I would call it the dis-information explosion," Wurman said. "Data is not information - the root of the word is `inform' and a lot of this stuff just doesn't inform."
He writes that The New York Times, covering everything from international news to business and local affairs, contains more information in one edition than a person in the 17th century was likely to encounter in a lifetime.
In the United States alone there are over 1,000 television stations and 10,000 radio stations vying for our attention, according to figures from the National Association of Broadcasters.
But instead of making us more knowledgeable than our forebears, the data deluge has dulled our ability to take in what we read, shortened concentration spans and made us more aware of what we don't know, Wurman says.
He writes that a chronic fear of being uninformed produces a condition similar to the eating disorder bulimia - in which eating binges are followed by self-induced vomiting.
An "information bulimia" sufferer has attacks of subscription mania, when publications pile up at home or in the office, inducing guilt and then a period of data purging.
One remedy suggested in the book is a strict information diet: one daily newspaper - the one you're holding will do quite nicely - to be taken regularly, plus one news magazine and one culture publication. For professional needs, the book offers guidance on how to work out a leaner specialist diet.
Media specialist Peter Clarke welcomed the book.
"This is one of the few good efforts to address the problem of turning data into information," said Clarke, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California.
And he believes that in years to come his suggestions on how to present data may be universally accepted.
He foresees a national drive to make handbooks and manuals clearer, a ban on promotional "junk mail" sent via telex and facsimile machines, special awards for clarity in journalism and the creation of a new cabinet post: Secretary of Understanding.