Coping with Information Overload
You know it all too well: The amount of information available to us wherever we go is increasing rapidly and perpetually. As a result, we're all expected to absorb and respond to more information than ever before. The reasons are very familiar:
- New technology making information available at all times everywhere;
- Expectations for instant gratification for virtually every need;
- Fewer people in the workplace to deal with all the work;
- More work being done by outside firms—increasing the burdens of communication (and the likelihood of miscommunication).
But most of us have had to deal with this tremendous influx of information and distractions without any preparation, training, or time. Often, we find it difficult to process the flood of information—we feel as though we're drowning, struggling to find time for more important tasks. The good news is that there are steps you can take to keep your head above the information torrent.
With the advent of the Internet, the amount of information available is estimated to double every 18 months or sooner. Although information overload is a fairly recent phenomenon, it's already claiming casualties. Many of us feel that we have to keep up with the information flow in order to perform well, yet increasing amounts of time are required to help us wade through the massive amounts of data available—which, paradoxically, seems only to put us further behind.
Information-overload contributes to significant time-pressure in the workplace which can result in debilitating stress. This is turn can affect other areas of your life, as it manifests itself in many ways, including increased levels of anxiety, short-term memory problems, poor concentration, and a reduction in your decision making skills. A worldwide survey conducted by Reuters found that two thirds of managers suffer from increased tension and one third from ill health attributed to information overload.
Information management, like time management, is a matter of discipline. To get on top of things, you need to set boundaries around how much information you are going to try to consume, and how much time you're prepared to spend processing information. Remember, even if you never slept or took a moment off, you'd never consume all the information available to you anyway. So make peace with the fact that there is a great deal of information you will have to flat-out ignore. Put yourself in the position of choosing how much information you'll consume, what it will be and when you will do it.
First of all, decide what your limits are and create a personal information management system that works for you. Here are some techniques to try:
- Set boundaries around the time you spend responding to e-mails; filter them through your assistant (if you're lucky enough to have one), and responding only to those e-mails that hold high importance for you.
- Create criteria to define what you allow through your email system's filters and what you want to screen out automatically. This may mean putting priorities on the type of e-mails you receive and deleting those that are low priority—even you find them to be attractive distractions.
- Return calls only to those people you need to speak to.
- Only look at a piece of data once before deciding what to do with it—and take effective action to dispense with the matter once you've made your decision. Typically, you have five choices for dealing with any information that presents itself to your awareness:
- Act on it right now. Take immediate action to dispense with the matter.
- Schedule it for later action. And "schedule it" doesn't mean throw it into a stack of items you won't ever get to.
- Delegate the matter to someone else more appropriate to dealing with it.
- File the information for future reference. This option only has value if you have an effective way to find and retrieve the information later when you want to access it again. Otherwise, it's the same as never having filed the information.
- Tossing or deleting the information. If you've ever sorted your postal mail over a waste basket, you know the value of immediately tossing irrelevant and unwanted information. Use this principle liberally throughout the rest of your life. Ignore and toss away the many extraneous and irrelevant distractions that have limited or no value to you. If you mistakenly toss something important, don't worry; if it's really that important, it'll come back to you in one way or another.
- Identify time-wasting information and eliminate it. For example, you could ask to be removed from your company's list of often unnecessary "everyone" e-mails; request a good spam filter from the IT department; or ask for a summary of overly long minutes or reports from meetings, committees and the like.
So much information is now at our disposal that worrying about missing something can prompt us to spend far too much time wading through every piece of data available. Remember that before the Internet, people used to make decisions in ambiguous situations; it was considered to be a management skill.
Besides, the truth is, no matter how much information you gather, you can't know everything you might want to know before deciding or acting. So in most situations, you're going to have to take something of a leap of faith anyway. Aim to develop your instincts along with your knowledge—both will stand you in very good stead.
Whenever you're looking for information, keep the "Pareto principle" in mind. This concept holds that 20% of what you've accessed probably holds 80% of the information you need. As part of your new, efficient approach to knowledge-seeking, find your own preferred places for accessing information and discipline yourself to go there only. "Just one more place to check" is a bottomless pit. You already know the high-quality sites for your particular field of work, so why waste time elsewhere?
If you truly feel the need for more or varied information sources, try making use of the reference librarians in your company or your professional association, if you have one. They're experienced at finding relevant information in your specialized area and can often save you a great deal of time.
Finally, only look at data that is relevant to your job, the project you're working on, or the decision you're making. The whole universe is interesting, but you don't have time to process it all. Bear in mind the principles of time management, as they're just as effective for dealing with information overload. For example, surfing the Web is incredibly seductive, with each link taking you further and further into fascinating but unnecessary detail. Decide how much time you'll spend in each session, print the information that is relevant, and leave the rest in the ether. You often pick up all the information you need in a few hits, the remainder being less fruitful. Remember that the more specific you make your searches, the more efficient they will be—you'll probably pick up most of the information you need in the first ten minutes or so.
Try not to be the dumping ground for information that others don't want to wade through. This will involve being polite but assertive and also by being sensible; if you're snowed under as it is, don't even hint at being receptive to this type of task. Take control of what passes over your desk and decide not to be held hostage by a piece of data just because it presents itself: Pass along to others books and journals you know you won't read.
It may seem rather self-defeating to resort to technology to solve a problem that technology produced in the first place, but there are useful electronic devices that can help alleviate information overload. Handheld organizers are one example. They have many functions that can be accessed while traveling, making use of otherwise "dead" time: you can read your e-mails, edit documents, plan meetings, write reports, and even read the newspaper. Any changes to your documents can be automatically transferred to your PC when you get back to the office.
To give yourself some much-needed space, leave your cell phone switched off for periods during the day when you can be quiet and restful or let your voicemail field calls for you. This way you can decide who to speak to and when to schedule the conversations. If you have wireless e-mail capability, don't be a slave to it. Set limits. Give your mind some rest from the anxiety of the workplace by not cluttering it with workplace details 24x7.
Don't be a hoarder. Have the courage to throw data away or delete files when you've exhausted their usefulness. You can always access the same data again and, probably when you do, it will have been updated. Toss reports and memos you know you won't read—they really aren't helpful to you stacked up all over your work space (in fact, those reminders of work not done may be counterproductive).
Getting drawn into the detail of all the information that's available wastes a lot of time. People often fear they'll miss an essential piece of information if they don't comb through every available source, but in fact this rarely happens. Resist the temptation to scrutinize every piece of information that appears on your screen or arrives on your desk. Learn to skim and dispatch with the marginally relevant stuff so that you have more time to dwell on the truly meaningful things.
Being able to prioritize information will save you hours, and you may even find that you can delegate some of the processing to a member of your team, outlining what they should focus on and report back to you. Remember to give your colleague clear instructions and a deadline and try not to contribute to their information overload problem!
Not being able to switch off from the need to absorb or generate information can be tiring and stressful. Blood pressure can rise, mental faculties can deteriorate, and any patience you may have had can disappear altogether. Just as the body needs time to relax, so does the mind—and not just when it's in the sleep state. Quieting the mind through techniques such as meditation or yoga has been proven to increase health, improve memory, and stimulate creativity. It has also been linked to increased productivity and a sense of wellbeing. If these techniques don't appeal to you, try other recuperative pursuits such as listening to music, reading, or taking gentle exercise. Anything that allows the mind to "freewheel" will help a great deal. However you do it, make sure you unplug, turn off, and unwind. That's how humans recharge their batteries.
"Overcoming information overload" Infoworld.com: www.infoworld.com/articles/ca/xml/00/01/10/000110caoverload.html
"Five Simple Techniques for Surviving Information Overload" Marlborough Business Association: www.mba-ct.org/content/articles/2006/10122006.htm
"Dealing with Information Overload" IntranetJournal.com: www.intranetjournal.com/articles/200507/pij_07_18_05a.html
Microsoft Windows Mobile: www.microsoft.com/windowsmobile/default.mspx
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