How to Avoid Information Overload



When I think back to earlier in my career, there are hundreds of things that spring to mind.  Memories of good times and bad, highs and lows, I’m sure you know the sort of thing.  In and amongst those memories is a vivid image of my desk, which zooms in on my computer screen to see hundreds upon hundreds of emails. Emails I’d read, emails left unread, but all piling up.  It characterizes how I used to work: controlled by my email inbox, struggling to lift my head above the parapet and consumed by the stress of information overload.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  I’ve changed.  You can too. 

What you can’t do is ignore the problem and hope it goes away: our consumption of information is rising.  Every study about email points to the number of emails we receive on average per year rising by between 10 and 20%.  That’s not to mention the relatively recent additions of social media consumption, easier internet browsing and the free availability of tools that turn information consumers into content providers too.  Expect these to rise exponentially, like it or not.

Let’s start by defining the problem.  Peter Drucker, many years ago coined the term ‘knowledge work’.  Put simply, our jobs in the ‘knowledge work economy’ involve adding value and creating value from information.  The phrase we most often hear is ‘information overload’.  Information itself is actually not the problem at all.  The problem, as defined so brilliantly by David Allen  is ‘potential meaning overload’.

It’s the ‘potential meaning’ of each piece of information as it gets our attention that is so overwhelming.  Why?  Two reasons.

Firstly, the meaning could potentially be a gold-mine (extra funding, extra resources to help me achieve my creative mission, new opportunities for exciting partnerships) or a land-mine (‘if I miss this deadline we’ll look bad’, ‘we need to comply with this’, ‘I can’t afford to not be involved’ and so on).  Adding the right value to the right information is the very essence of work, for most of us.

Secondly, our brains are limited in their ability to retain information.  If you don’t believe me, think back to that childhood party game, “I went to the shops and I bought…”  Very few people can retain more than about ten things in their mind without starting to drop things, yet most people decide their brains are the best place to try to retain all their projects and commitments rather than externalizing this properly into lists, project plans and so on.  It’s so much easier to see the wood from the trees – and make intuitive decisions about comparative value – when you can actually SEE all the trees!

So if you’re feeling overwhelmed by it all, you’re not alone.  Realise that there are actually 4 distinct disciplines in knowledge work.  At Think Productive we call this the CORD workflow model:

CAPTURE & COLLECT – the gathering of all information, as it arises.  This goes a long way to eliminating the stress created by fearing we’ll miss or forget things, as long as you know you will come back and process this information later.

ORGANISE – systematically analyzing what you’ve collected and making up-front decisions on what the final conclusion and next action will be for each piece of information, or of course, deciding things aren’t worth doing at all.  The discipline of keeping action-orientated lists, where you have already defined the next action, the location and what the finish line looks like is one of the most underrated skills in knowledge work.

REGULAR REVIEW – regularly practicing two distinct forms of review: the ‘in the moment’ review of your ‘next action lists’, designed to make the decision about ‘what next?’ and ‘what adds the most value?’, and the ‘weekly review’, where you revisit your list of projects and make sure that you know the next action for each and every project you’re committed to and get a wider perspective on things.

DO – As Seth Godin calls it, ‘Shipping’.  There’s nothing more satisfying in your quest to avoid information overload than clearing the decks with some good old fashioned action.  But recognizing that there are three other phases we need to complete before a lot of the magic happens can make the ‘doing’ part so much more enjoyable.

Recognizing these four distinct phases on knowledge work can be a great help when we’re faced with information overload – where’s the ‘blockage’?  Is it too much information coming in? Is it too much information remaining undefined, with no sense of the potential meaning? Is it because you need to take a step back and revisit priorities?  Or is it that the time for thinking is over and you need to clear the decks by simply getting on with delivering on your commitments?

There is, of course, a cultural dimension to this too.  Work/life balance policies, excellent line-management, good communication and a healthy attitude to innovation and the possibility of human failure all play a part in making an organization a healthier place to work where the ‘too much information’ syndrome can be addressed quite explicitly.  I work with organizations across all sectors to confront this very openly, helping to get email inboxes to zero, improve email and information etiquette, implementing the CORD model mentioned here with teams and helping to apply clarity and focus to meetings.  Doing this openly creates a culture where we can reclaim our time and attention, control our information flow rather than letting it control us and ultimately create more value and meaning on our quest to make the world that little bit better.

Guest blogger: Graham Allcott is the author of “How to be a Productivity Ninja” and he runs time management training for some of the UK’s biggest companies.

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