Fed Up with Information Overload? Five Strategies to Reclaim Your Time and Sanity

by Diane Berenbaum

Overwhelmed—that's how I feel some mornings when I open my inbox. OK…make that most mornings. Ever get that sinking feeling in your stomach when you know you've got way too much to do or read? Countless emails are popping up in our inboxes, not to mention must-read industry updates, newsletters, LinkedIn messages, Facebook alerts, blogs, wikis, texts and tweets. And then there are meetings to attend, webinars to watch, calls to take and make, and so on.

The average person is bombarded with enough information every day to overload a laptop computer—about 34 gigabytes—according to a University of San Diego study. And, we're faced with more work demands than ever. A Spherion Staffing survey discovered that 53% of workers had been compelled to take on extra tasks since the recession started. According to Edward Hallowell, a New York psychiatrist, "Never before in human history have our brains had to process as much information as they do today."

Turns out, seven out of 10 office workers in the United States feel overwhelmed by information in the workplace. And, more than two in five say they are headed for a data "breaking point," according to the 2010 International Workplace Productivity Survey by LexisNexis. 

The Avalanche of Information is Taking a Psychological and Physical Toll

Yet, let's face it, we're addicted. And that's not good for our mental or physical health. Researchers found that the stress of not being able to process information as fast as it arrives—combined with a perceived expectation that we must answer every email promptly—can be depleting and demoralizing.  I know the feeling.

According to a Reuters survey, over one-third of managers stated that data deluge has damaged their health. And, over two-thirds believe this inundation of information has hurt their personal relationships and made their jobs less satisfying.

It's a recipe for exhaustion, yet we're obsessed with a need to know and are continually drawn to that information. We think we can handle it, and we dare not ignore it…or else we might be out of date, out of touch, or even ultimately, out of a job.

Is Multi-tasking the Answer?

What do we tend to do to manage the deluge? We multi-task. That's right; we figure if we just do more things at once, in the same amount of time, then we can handle it. We even get a bit of a "kick" out of checking things off.

According to McKinsey's white paper on Information Overload, "We tend to believe that by doing several things at the same time we can better handle the information rushing toward us and get more done. What's more, multitasking—interrupting one task with another—can sometimes be fun. It helps us feel, at least briefly, that we've accomplished something—even if only pruning our email inboxes."

Unfortunately McKinsey's research proved quite the opposite: "Multi-tasking unequivocally damages productivity." Let's face it; many of us have entered the overworked and ineffective zone.

Five Time-saving Strategies to Save the Day

So, how do we reclaim our time and flow, not to mention our sanity? Here are five time-saving strategies that will change your day:

  1. Face the Facts and Focus

    As Scott Hanselman, Microsoft Project Manager says, "You can't know everything anymore. You just can't catch up, even by working until 2:00 AM every day." It's not possible given the never-ending sea of information and emails. We may think or even hope we can. But, as Scott notes, "Hope is not a strategy. Hoping it will get better, or hoping we can handle it will just not work."

    Instead, focus on effectiveness and efficiency; that is, doing the right things and doing things right. Not…on doing everything that comes into your inbox.
  2. Sort Your Inbox

    When you look at your inbox, immediately sort emails by priority or relevancy. Assign a value to incoming messages, and then act based on those values. Todd Dewett, author of Leadership Redefined, recommends the classic 80/20 rule. The "80" are far from life and death, so get to them later. The other "20" are important and require attention.

    You can also explore automated sorting or filters. You create a set of rules and a destination that instructs the system to automatically deliver incoming messages to the folder of your choice. Emails on the same topic are immediately gathered into a subfolder in your inbox, allowing easy access and efficient reading.

    Here's an extra tip I learned from my associate, Anne Koproski, if you want to be sure you don't miss any tasks, calls or meetings. In Outlook 2010 and Outlook 2007, you can drag an email message to a date on your Calendar or to your Task List. This copies the message to the new location; it doesn't move it out of the original mail folder, so you'll still be able to find it in its original place…and it will be on your calendar and task list, when you need to act on it!
  3. Get Off Lists

    Those of us with a "need to know" also have a tendency to subscribe to just about any publication that might be remotely helpful to us in the future. Or, we've signed up for news and updates from a variety of sources from LinkedIn to industry-specific organizations.

    You can be more selective and more diligent about it. It's OK. Todd Dewett offers this rule:  if a recurring email is sent to you three times in a row without having any relevance to anything you are doing, then get off that list. 
  4. Keep the Flow and Limit Distractions

    Remain in your flow…and watch interrupting yourself. Don't be tempted by an incoming email or "to-do" that pops into your head. Resist the temptation to switch gears. And for goodness sake, if you haven't already turned off the pop-up email notifications or message alerts, you can do so now.

    Some also recommend the Pomodore technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo. This technique uses a timer to break work into 25-minute intervals called "Pomodoros" (from the Italian word for 'tomatoes'). You use an actual timer (e.g. a kitchen timer—perhaps even one shaped like a tomato), set it for 25 minutes and then focus….on one thing…before taking a break. Start with short five-minute breaks, and then every four "pomodoros" take a longer break (15–20 minutes). You'll be amazed at what you can accomplish, and how it feels.
  5. Do the Four D's

    Sometimes we just open emails as they appear, due to our Pavlovian reflex to respond. Or, we just keep rearranging our emails, or marking them in different ways, with the intention of going back and doing "something" with them.

    David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, suggests the Four D approach, where you assign the appropriate "D" to deal with emails and tasks that consume our day:

Do it:  If it will take two minutes or less, do it now. Set aside a time for these "do it now" messages and get them done quickly.

Drop it:  Do nothing or delete it.

Delegate:  Get someone else to do it; figure out the most appropriate people and set them up for success.

Defer it:  Put it on a to-do list, archive it and deal with it another time.

We may be becoming "an [attention-deficit disorder] society switching back and forth like crazy," as noted by Ellen Kossek of Michigan State University. But we can do something about it. Starting now. Put that on the top of your "to-do" list!
Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .
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