Dealing with information overload

As a busy woman, do you have hundreds of emails to read, reports, memos and social media messages to deal with, not to mention real life letters and phone calls? If so, you could be suffering from information overload.

Information overload is very common in this age of computers, mobiles and everything designed to make the passing of data faster and in many ways, more rushed. Work has changed a lot from the way it used to be. In the good old days, we had slow and fast times and we always knew we could use the slow times to catch up. These days, there are no more slow times.

Odette Pollar, of Time Management Systems Inc, and author of the book “365 Ways to Simplify Your Life”, says that there are actually two issues that cause the overload to happen: how we assimilate data (from electronic and spoken word sources) and the physical volume of the paper or the information itself (in the form of hard copy like magazines, reports and mail).

She says that the reason we get backlogged is because we often don’t know what to do with everything we receive. “We usually don’t have any kind of system in place,” she advises. “So it’s not the volume of the paper itself that’s the problem, but rather the decisions we have to make about it”.

If you are overloaded with paper, you might be tempted to shuffle it from pile to pile, (note how good it feels when it’s aged enough so you can throw it out!).

The second problem with paper management is fear – the fear that you’ll throw something out and need it later.

To get over this fear, ask yourself the following four questions every time you pick up a piece of paper:

Do I need to keep it?

Where do I keep it?

How long do I keep it?

How can I find it again?

The result of all this accumulation of paper and the fear you feel about throwing something out is that you start behaving negatively. You begin to procrastinate, get irritated, get bogged down in minutia (”I have to send this form back to you because you didn’t fill out your middle name”) or you can’t remember things (not just about where you parked your car but even whether you drove today; or you find yourself outside someone’s office but don’t remember why you’re there). These are indications of information overload.

Even if you do most of your work online and thus don’t have to deal with physical paper, digital documents can have the same affect. In the modern economy, plenty of people do the vast majority of their work online, and many work from home, but information overload hasn’t gone away – if anything, it’s gotten worse. After all, email is much easier to send than physical mail, and so every morning we’re inundated with dozens of new emails. It can easily become overwhelming very quickly.

Janis Rodriguez, who writes about working from home (or teletrabajo as its known in her native spanish) on her website Mi Trabajo Mi Casa has this to say:

“The key to dealing with information overload, whether you work online or not, is to carve out specific times for dealing with emails (and memos, reports, and so forth) and carve out time that’s actually dedicated to working on your core goals/projects. If you don’t do this, your entire day becomes filled up with low priority emails and paperwork, and you end up never actually getting anything done.”

But don’t despair because there are things you can do to get back in control. First of all, realise that information ages, so if your ‘to read’ pile is over six months old, throw it away. The same applies to emails – if they are months old, delete them. If someone needs something from you that badly, they’ll reach out to you again. The information has changed anyway. “All the aging reading piles do is make you feel guilty,” advises Odette.

According to Richard Saul Worman, author of Information Anxiety, to be of help to you, information must “have meaning, be understandable and have immediate application.”

Therefore, try to screen out the inessential. When it comes to subscriptions, it’s better to subscribe to a newspaper or magazine and read it regularly than to subscribe to many and read none. Try to focus on the information that helps you see the big picture (ie it helps you with clients, helps you grow personally etc). Then be ruthless about what you allow yourself to keep. Ask yourself if you’ll need it in the next three months and if not, toss it out ONMA.

You should be able to relate any news ideas to information you currently have, or tie it to something that already exists. If you can’t, throw it out. Take steps today to reduce your ‘to read’ pile by focusing on the quality of the information, rather than the volume.

That volume can be dealt with by asking yourself what the item refers to. This will tell you what file it should go in. (”Papers should stay with their friends”, smiles Odette). Before putting it in the file, however, ask yourself what is your very next step. Here you can write yourself a note that it should go:

– On you “to-do” list

– On your “project” list

– On your calendar

These are your only three choices. In all this you should be making an effort to decide sooner, throw things away faster and if possible, delegate more. Finally, learn to put paper where it belongs the first time you touch it and never open and read something without making a decision or taking action.

Understand too, that you do not have time to read everything in depth, so scan for important concepts and read in depth only if you need to. Tear out interesting articles and file them in a ‘to read’ file. Toss the remainder of the publication. Then set aside time in your schedule (twice a week for 30 minutes if you can do it) to read. Highlight as you read so you don’t have to go over the article again. Once you’ve finished reading decide where it goes next – file, action or calendar.

As Odette says, “At the end of the day, it’s a great feeling to be able to say ‘Yes, I am working on that or yes, I have that’ and be able to go to where it is”.

That’s when you know you’re in control and information overload is a thing of the past.

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