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How To Handle Information Overload

15 May 2010

Information Overload

Do you sometimes feel overloaded with all the information coming at you? Is your productivity at work suffering as a result of managing email, instant messenger, facebook, twitter and all the other things you have to read through?

I had dinner with a friend this week who’s a National Sales Manager for a well known corporate in the UK. He told me how he’d spent the afternoon working through a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) with one of the guys in his team, someone who’d been under-performing against target since the start of the year and was now on track for a written warning. What he couldn’t understand was how this guy, who’d been with the company for many years and had always performed well, seemed so busy (he was almost late for the PIP meeting), yet hadn’t done his numbers for almost six months.

After some probing on my part, it turns out that there had been a lot of change at the company recently, following its acquisition by a much larger organisation last year. Mergers and acquisitions, and the subsequent tools rolled-out for optimising processes and tracking performance, can result in a huge increase in information flow across the workforce – on top of today’s already information-rich social working environments. This affects everyone in the company because TIME is MONEY and unless dealt with effectively, it can be the source of much stress and overwhelm.

Having worked for a global professional services company in the past, with analysts working on my client’s projects all over the world, I used to get a huge amount of information come my way. I’d also need to attend conference calls first thing in the morning with India and China, who are 5 / 8 hours ahead of the UK, and last thing at night with North America, 5-8 hours behind the UK. I therefore needed to learn some things about how to handle information overload, so here are some top tips that worked for me:

  1. First thing in the morning, identify exactly what you want to achieve that day.
  2. Remind yourself why you want to achieve it i.e. what will it mean to you, your clients, your finances, your career.
  3. Be effective not just efficient - work on those things that move you towards your big picture (this is usually around 20% of the things on your list).
  4. Set a time for activities like email and stick to it – if you plan to spend half a day clearing your inbox from all those unread messages, you’ll spend half a day; if you plan to blast them in an hour, you will.
  5. Be mindful of, and therefore limit, the activities we all use for distraction – natural coping mechanisms for avoiding jobs we’ve been putting off include reading/watching/listening to the news, checking social networking sites during the day, and reading long and irrelevant emails / brain farts from people who have nothing better to do with their time.
  6. Learn to become selectively ignorant with information – take what’s useful and relevant, swerve or bin the rest.
  7. Never start a work-day without a clear set of mini results you want to achieve – focus on a maximum of three per day.
  8. Minimise interruptions when working on important tasks - turn phone to silent, close email app, turn IM off.
  9. Don’t suffer fools gladly – otherwise you’ll become one.
  10. Learn the arts of priority, focus and leverage.

David Allen has written a best seller for anyone wanting to learn how to achieve stress-free productivity (if you can find the time to read it of course:)

‘Alack of time is often a lack of priorities’

‘Being overwhelmed is often as unproductive as doing nothing – and far more unpleasant!’

‘Dedication is often meaningless work in disguise’<

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