Software

Five tips for surviving information overload

If you're being inundated by ever-increasing volumes of information, take heart. These strategies can help you tame the info-chaos.

It's a challenge of modern life: email, Twitter feeds, instant messaging, text messages, and other snippets of information are coming at us so fast that it's hard not to feel under digital attack. Sure, some of it's important -- and that's precisely the problem. Turn it all off and you might as well quit the workforce. But read it all and your mind becomes so drained that it's a challenge to get anything else done.

In some ways, technology has evolved in a way that puts mere humans in a bind. Consider the email conundrum. From the moment you wake up, it seems the inbox is calling your name. And if you're like most of us, you answer its call pretty quickly.

"The brain hates uncertainty," says David Rock, the CEO of Results Coaching Systems and author of Your Brain at Work. "It's literally painful to not download your email the moment you arrive at your desk in the morning. But once you've processed 30 or 40 emails, you've ruined your brain chemistry for higher level tasks that are going to create value."

In fact, a University of London study done for Hewlett-Packard found that "infomania" - a term connected with addiction to email and texting - can lower your IQ by twice as much as smoking marijuana. Moreover, email can raise the levels of noradrenaline and dopamine in your brain by constantly introducing new stimuli into your day. When those levels get too high, complex thinking becomes more difficult, making it harder to make decisions and solve problems.

In short, the brain's capacity for decision-making evolved at a time when people had less to think about. Great, so now you have an excuse for not keeping up. But you still need a game plan.

Note: These tips are based on an entry in BNET's Life at Work blog.

1: Take control of email

Don't start your day with email. Set your email so it doesn't download new mail automatically or, at the very least, turn off any alert system. Instead, set a time to check for messages manually -- preferably later in the day, after you've used your brainpower for more important things.

Equally important is that others at your business know how you want email used. "Emails should be short, concise, and used only when a conversation is not an option," says Adrian Moorhouse, managing director of executive coaching firm Lane4. "The easier communication is to digest, the more likely it is that the messages will be delivered effectively."

Some colleagues seem unable to help themselves. They send too many emails; they gossip or forward jokes. Get them to divert their personal chatter online by allowing them to use social media at work (even if it's just at set times of the day). Or talk to the worst offenders one-on-one. Peter Taylor, the director of the project management office for Siemens and author of "The Lazy Project Manager," says when he's cc'd on emails, he tells the senders to cut it out. "If people had to produce single sheets of paper and hand them out every time they wanted to communicate, they'd be a lot more conscientious. I educate everyone who I communicate with and as a result, the emails I do receive are pertinent to me. I restructure those emails, copy them into ongoing documents, and keep my inbox very small."

If you're reaching a breaking point, do the email equivalent of filing for bankruptcy. Simply wipe your inbox to start afresh. It seems drastic, but it can work. Send a message to all contacts letting them know what you're planning, select all emails, and delete or archive them. If you're planning a new regime of folders, rules, filters, and information-sharing disciplines, starting from scratch isn't so crazy.

2. Prioritize your prioritizing

To help you prioritize, start by setting clear goals. We all tend to do this subconsciously, but writing them down helps you actually achieve them. Here, too, time of day really matters. "Prioritizing is one of the brain's most energy-hungry processes," Rock says. That means it's best done when your mind is fresh and well rested. Allocate time to order your thoughts -- dashing off a to-do list of tasks that are "front of mind" is easy, but it won't break the back of the work you need to cover.

Try organizing your thinking visually. One great way is with Mind Maps, diagrams of ideas linked together in a tree system that help you visualize all of them in context to each other. That way you won't forget any of your ideas when you have to decide which ones are the most important.

3. Blindside the data (approach it from an unexpected direction)

Break down complex information into sub-groups. Once you've determined a goal, you can "chunk" your work into groups to achieve it. You can also do this with your to-do lists.

According to an experiment at Wilfred Laurier University (It's About Time: Optimistic Predictions in Work and Love, European Review of Social Psychology), people are generally bad at estimating when they'll finish their own work, but good at guessing for others. So gauge your timing by using someone else's experience. You'll be less stressed if you're realistic about your workload.

4. Do less

To do less, you should delegate more. Too many managers can't resist the temptation to get personally involved in everything that's happening. But effective delegation means limiting the amount of information you have to process, as well as empowering those around you. Then, ask for regular briefings.

5. Unplug

Many managers feel they can't shut off the fire hydrant of information. But they can take a break from it. "It's tempting to think that more information makes for better decisions," says Penny de Valk, CEO of the UK-based Institute of Leadership and Management. "But in most cases, it just erodes your focus. You need time to synthesize information and generate real intelligence."

That takes discipline, of course, but it's useful to stop thinking when you are stuck on a project so your brain can recover. "You do need to switch off and rebalance your brain chemistry if you're going to come up with new ideas," Rock says.


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23 comments
JosB
JosB

I handle my mail as follows: I've got many rules on incoming mail that determine the faith. Mail from specific senders (mailing lists, automated processes) get into specific folders. Mail where I'm in the CC get tagged with 'CC'. This already sorts the bulk when I start. Next is determining action. Action now, action later or reference. Once this is done it's out my mailbox. If it's action later I have to determine when. Today, this week, this month or 'someday'. Today get's on my to-do list. This week in a folder I scan daily at the end of each day. This month will get a weekly scan. Once things need to be done they get moved, from 'this month' to 'this week' and from 'this week' to my to-do list. This keeps my mail clean most of the time, only after holidays or when I'm having too much work it starts to bulk. Which brings me to the following part: As long as you are not your own department you can always delegate. A lot of requests that land on my desk 'flow' to other people and a lot from their requests get on my desk. How I do this? I ask myself: "Am I the right person to do this? And do I have time to do this in the time it should be delivered?" A lot of time the answer will be no. Time for me to find someone who is the right person and has time. When work get's too much I'll inform my head of department. And not at 100%, but at 80%. There is always something usefull to do in that 'spare' 20% of time but if you are at 100% you cannot get the incidental extra load that always seems to happen one day. If you are loaded with work 100% you are either doing production work on a belt (or something like that) or you (and your boss and his/her boss) are not doing your (their) job well. It's your responsibility to say 'too much' and it's the responsibility of the manager to do something about that. I know, work often isn't like that. But in the end it results in complaints from customers and loss of revenue. Too bad many people don't see this.

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

Is this article strictly for managers? If so, my mistake. If not, here are some comments. 1. Take Control of email: One of my bosses, works late. I am required to work early because he doesn't want to work early. I NEED to check my email early in the day. Basically, I use my inbox as my todo list. One of the first things I do after I get to work is to clean up my inbox. 90%+ emails are deleted on the spot. Of the other 10% probably half are sorted to Outlook folders on my local machine. This only takes me 10 min. One reason not to delete relevant emails is confirmation. Other bosses have denied giving orders. If you send it to me in an email, at least I have some confirmation for what I am doing. This comes up a lot. Even more if the orders/requests are verbal only. Also my boss, actually wants to be kept in the loop. That means CCing him RELEVANT emails. Sure, save the jokes for face to face, or not, depending on the day. But my boss, and I suspect most bosses hate to be blindsided by some change that I have made. They are OK with me making the change, but want to know what is going on. 2. Prioritize... "Try organizing your thinking visually." Maybe. But most bosses seem to like lists. Inventories, a todo list for the next few days outlining what needs to done, what is required, etc. A visual representation of the work that works for me might not be legible to my boss and vice versa. 3. Blind side the data... Good idea. Basic puzzle solving. Look the problem over from all conceivable angles. Then get someone else to look at it and see what angles they come up with. BTW: We do puzzles here at work, both as groups and as individuals. Rather than a loss of productivity I think it helps with solving the work related puzzles. Just my opinion. 4 & 5. Do less. Unplug. Great! I'm willing. Obviously for managers.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Especially #1. Not immediately reading e-mail makes it too easy to spend a couple of hours working on something that was a priority yesterday, but may have been bumped by something else overnight. No sense inventorying surplus hardware when there's an e-mail from the boss' secretary that his system won't boot. Like LL, I manage e-mails as soon as they arrive. Most are deleted, some are turned into Service Desk work orders. Unlike LL, I never keep anything solely as a 'CYA'.

cwwhyte
cwwhyte

If you don't know what a priority is first thing in the morning and you have to read your email to know... something is wrong there. I'm willing to bet that if your priorities change on a whim like that, you have more unfinished projects than finished, and the big bosses are consitently crying out for the unfinished projects. When the secretary is emailing that the boss' computer won't boot, that secretary isn't communicating that urgency very well. That ought to be a phone call to the help desk, or depending on how high the boss is, it might even be a call out in the night. Email is not a tool for immediate communication, it is for passing of information when the reciever has time to look at it. For immediate communication there are many, many, many other better options.

TBBrick
TBBrick

Hmmm, surprised that hasn't bit you in the nether region yet. You just never knows when even the normally relatively sane co-worker will find himself in a self-made bind and want to throw you under the old bus, so I keep final email of everything. To keep Outlook from getting bogged down, I have storage folders configured to periodically archive without prompting to a network folder. Ilient, our HD system has a function where users can send an email to Service Request, which automatically creates a ticket. Perhaps your HD SW has the same function?

Justin James
Justin James

Sending *to* a smartphone user is easier on the thumbs for the sender via email than text, provided that they have access to a real computer. If not, it doesn't matter. Something I've seen time and time again is that the quality of the recipient's comprehension AND response is *very* device dependent. Reading messages on smartphones seems to demolish a lot of the meaning in the message, perhaps due to the circumstances that it gets read. The responses are truncated too, and often lack pertinent information. Smartphones should never, EVER be seen as a primary communications device for written stuff (email, text messages, documents, Web, or otherwise) unless you want to make some major screwups. But there are too many people who "manage via BlackBerry", and it usually shows in their organizations. J.Ja

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"Why would a text message be better to a smartphone user than an email? ...sending email is easier on the thumbs..." Why is that? I don't have a 'smart' phone, but don't you use the same keyboard for both functions? How is one easier that the other?

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

From the time you leave work until you get back, most bosses, certainly mine, reserve the right to change their mind, your mind and priorities. I don't have to like it, but usually when I understand my bosses reasons later they made sense. The truth is while I usually DO have a good idea of what tomorrow will be like, nothing is set in stone. I need to be flexible enough to adjust my priorities. Not just for emergencies, but for day to day changes. No matter what, you never know what is going to come in your door, or when.

Justin James
Justin James

Why would a text message be better to a smartphone user than an email? It's not. It cannot carry nearly enough information much of the time (the limit is what... 160 characters?), and sending email is easier on the thumbs (unless you know the semi-secret way of sending an email to a text message that carriers have, like phonenumber@vtext.com for Verizon). :) Someone else a bit lower says, "well, if it's an emergency, just call them!" When people are in a meeting, they *don't answer their phones*. That's the whole point of sending an email (or text message, I suppose) that could be answered or at least read on the phone. For an environment in a meeting, text or email really is the best way to do it, and the choice of which simply depends on if they have a smartphone. If they do, email is, by far, the best. You can send a document, for example, and say, "I need a decision on this in the next half hour" and get it, while a phone call or desperate attempts to find what meeting room they are in fail. If you believe its an emergency, but they don't, they can tell you that without wasting their time. That being said... It's all dependent on the environment. In my *current* workplace, I do not use email unless it is unimportant. Many people tend to not check it in real time, or have a habit of not responding terribly quickly. No one other than me has a smartphone hooked into the email system (in fact, I am the only person in the company who *owns* a smartphone, which stuns me). I think only one or two people in the company knows how to use a text message either, for that matter (no, we do not still have rotary phones, but it would not surprise me either...). So really, the absolutely BEST way of getting in touch with folks is to just call the main number and ask the receptionist to patch you through, and if they are in a meeting, tell the receptionist that it is an emergency and to interrupt the meeting. It's like 1973 or something, people don't even have direct dial lines to their desks and all extensions are internal use only... J.Ja

JosB
JosB

I have this annoying thing. When people burst into the room yelling about 'emergency' or 'this has to be solved now or else ...' I ask them if the building is on fire or perhaps someone is dieing. No? Perhaps something is happening that puts the business in serious financial or reputational risk? Oh, again the answer is no? Where is the emergency? In case of true emergency it's a drop everything situation where people will be dragged out of meetings. You don't need to 'work' with text message, one saying 'call me asap' with a short description of the problem will do. In case of something important happening face to face contact is best. After that phone call. Only after that electronic communications like e-mail.

jfuller05
jfuller05

I work in local government, so there are meetings going on a lot. Users email me and I get it on my bberry. Being the only tech, that comes in handy for them. Of course, their other method (if I'm on site) is coming to my office and telling me the problem. My office isn't far from my fellow employees so that is their preferred method if I'm in my office. :)

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

You know that, I know that; try telling the boss' 'executive assistant' that. That phone call to the help desk goes to MY desk; I'm only guy. If I'm not here, they can leave a voice mail, the second thing I check after e-mail. (On odd-numbered Wednesdays in months starting with 'J', I check them in the other order.) Just because I have priorities set before I walk in the door doesn't mean they're going to stand up to what's bubbled to the top of the queue overnight. As to unfinished projects, 8ntil recently I rarely worked on projects. User service is about 75-80% of my job, and prioritizing those requests is a key task for me.

cwwhyte
cwwhyte

Justin, It may be the easiest communication tool for people in that position. Although I would still say that it isn't the *best* communication tool out there. If one has a smartphone, a quick text to communicate an emergency would be far more valuable. If it isn't worth interupting a meeting via phone or a knock on the door, then it really isn't an emergency is it? Anyone in a meeting that has to constantly check email should really evaluate why they are in the meeting to begin with. Any all day meetings I have been have had breaks where everyone can stop, take a breather, check email, etc. Maybe I have just been lucky. The topic at hand is on handling information overload, and putting down that smartphone and concentrating on the task at hand (the meeting) is one way of helping with that.

Big B
Big B

Whether or not it's purpose is to be a secondary communication tool (and how I feel about it) is irrelevant. Reality is that it is used as a primary by a lot of people. Somebody e-mailing me about a computer that won't boot has and will happen.

Justin James
Justin James

In some places, email is the *best* emergency communications tool, because everyone is in meetings all day (so phones are useless) but they are constantly checking their emails via smartphone. So unless you want to try working via text message (good luck), email is the best and often only way to do it. J.Ja

zentross
zentross

This is not a friendly economy to be choosy over employers.

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

I've never seen an org where some of that doesn't occur. But at the low to mid level manager position there is a lot of disagreement. Sometimes people "forget" what they said if it is convenient. Of course that's how you find out who the honest ones are. That said, I don't feel anybody is trying to screw me over. But the CYA covers my bosses rear also. If I do something questionable, or make a mistake it is my boss who will take the most heat.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

We keep those e-mails. By 'we', I mean there is an Exchange Public Folder the support tech dump them into after alter the appropriate global group. I don't consider those 'my' e-mails, but you have a point. Changes are submitted and processed via a non-email system. The original request may arrive that way, but all the documentation is in SharePoint. E-mails that make routine requests for support are entered into our service desk tracking system (FootPrints). Most users will enter their requests directly into it themselves.

JosB
JosB

In our company every mutation involving access rights is put in a formal system, either hard copy with autograph or electronic form that has tracking on who entered the request. Projects have to follow this rule. The same goes for changes. Follow the procedure which involves logging in the system (and the approval process behind it) or your change will not be processed. Sure, in very small companies this won't work as well and people might complain about procedures and 'I am not a typist' but it pays of in the end. Furtermore, as soon as you alone are not the entire department you need to share those requests anyway. People might ask your co-workers about them while you are on holiday or just away from your desk for a while.

jfuller05
jfuller05

I keep relevant emails in the inbox. Ones I don't need, I delete after a while. I don't have to keep "he said, she said" emails because they don't exist where I work.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Right now I have 21 messages in my Inbox, and 27 more in other mailbox folders. That's it; no archive, no personal folders, after 17 years with the same employer. Once I'm done with the job or task, I copy the information I think I might be able to reuser (say, if I need to do it perform the task again), and the e-mails hit the Delete bin. If I think someone else can use the info, I'll forward them a copy. I'll keep HR requests that involve accessing someone else's account for three to six months. I'm not keeping anything to settle 'He said, she said' situations. I won't work where I have to feel I have to keep everything to cover my @$$ or where my co-workers are trying to screw me over. Maybe I've gotten lucky in my employers.

BradTD
BradTD

I had a case last fall where I got accused of improperly setting permissions on a folder that had Personally Identifiable Information (PII) in it. Lo and behold, I found the e-mail--from five months earlier--that proved I had done exactly what was asked. Note that that this was for a conversion project and not a standard request--I don't literally keep every request e-mail! The point being, keeping e-mails as a record has proven invaluable to me many times throughout my career. I'd LOVE to delete my 900-message inbox now, but I'd be in tough shape if I did. I do understand the point about not living in e-mail. I have to fight that tendency on the job, even though it is an important part of my job. True for many of us, I suspect.

zentross
zentross

a regularly archived group of folders relating to customers, boss, and co-workers can go a long way in salvaging a bad situation when things go south. Keeping such e-mails around has saved me from many a potential 'bus accident'.

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