Handling Information Overload

I’ve been thinking about information overload for the past month or so.

It started with Jeff De Cagna’s breakfast session on Solving 21st Century Problems back in early March.

Then the #assnchat for March 16 focused on this topic.

Then I read this fun piece by Garrison Keillor in Salon.

And, in thinking about it, I realized that I actually do a pretty good job of this. I’m not always totally on top of every latest rumor about every bleeding edge technology or device. But I’m reasonably well-informed about most things related to social media and association management, while still being productive and successful in my job, spending a fair amount of time volunteering for ASAE and other groups in the DC community, writing this blog, writing an active and well-syndicated NFL blog, preserving time to read non-work-related stuff, having a life outside of all that and unplugging on a regular basis – all WITHOUT a smart phone.

In short, I have some tips to share for managing information overload.

My number 1 tip may be the hardest to replicate: be a fast reader who has good recall. I was already pretty good at this, but I got REALLY good in grad school. I do NOT recommend starting grad school just to acquire this skill. That’s like cutting off your arm to cure a paper cut. But anything you can do to speed up your pace and increase your retention will help. Yes, that means practice, and it also means focusing on one thing at a time.

That brings me to tip 2: multitasking is a myth. Music (preferably without lyrics) in the background while you’re writing? Sure. Skimming the headlines on the elliptical machine? You bet. Repeated cycling back and forth from working on next fiscal year’s budget to answering your email? Not so much. Every time you force your brain between disparate tasks, you lose momentum. That’s disastrous, particularly for tasks that require “flow.”

Tip 3: know and use the difference between “reading” and “skimming.” That rapid pace deep retention reading I do? I don’t use it for everything. I don’t need to devote that level of energy to my morning WaPo, or most magazine articles, or some emails, or most tweets, or some blog posts. The trick is to be able to QUICKLY identify which level of attention/retention is required and choose appropriately. But be a voracious reader and skimmer – you never know where your next great idea will be coming from.

Tip 4: choose what you pay attention to carefully. Social Media Today just wrote about this under the guise of trimming your lists. But the point is: only pay attention to what you’re really paying attention to. No matter how “famous” the person is, if you’re not getting anything out of following them or reading their blog, cut ’em. Be ruthless. You’ll never get to the meat if you’re inundated with fluff.

Tip 5: have a solid information organization system. Mine’s basically 3 pronged: my totally old skool, no-wifi, no email Palm Pilot (feel free to mock me, but I think, used properly, it’s the greatest productivity tool ever invented), my Del.icio.us bookmarks, and my relentlessly pruned and managed RSS feed. It’s not fancy, it’s not necessarily the latest technology or gizmo, but it enables me to keep basically everything I need to hand. It’s supplemented by a carefully chosen group of Google docs (not everything, just the really important stuff), and, again, carefully chosen tweeps to follow. I don’t need to be in touch with everyone, and I prune for value all the time.

A few more:

Only touch things once to the greatest degree possible. Your Outlook inbox is not a filing system. Neither is a giant pile o’ papers on your desk. Neither is an about-to-topple-over-and-crush-you-in-the-middle-of-the-night stack of books and magazines next to your bed. If it’s quick, deal with it now. If it’s not quick but important, put it on a relentlessly pruned, SMALL pile to deal with as soon as you get a block of time (and keep a list of your priority items and make sure you know when your next block of time is coming – and the one after that). If it’s FYI or for future reference, file it IMMEDIATELY. And when you *have* a block of time, don’t futz around on Twitter. Twitter’s for “I have 5 minutes between finishing this task and my next meeting.” Likewise, when all you have is 5 minutes between finishing this task and your next meeting, that is NOT the time to start writing the organization-wide marketing plan for next year. Fit the tasks to the time you have.

Set boundaries. Does technology really “set us free”? I’m not sure that it’s progress that Dad can email from the Blackberry while on a conference call while pushing Junior on the swings, particularly given what we know about our lack of ability to truly multitask. With very few exceptions (you’re a doctor or Barack Obama – and if so, thanks for reading, Mr. President!), no one’s life is dependent on your being accessible 24/7. Trust me – you’re not that indispensable. None of us are. And constantly checking up on your staff (which is what refusing to be offline EVER is all about) tells them that you don’t have confidence in them. Is that really the message you want to send?

Does that message (that it’s OK to set boundaries) have to come from the top of your organization? It certainly helps, but in my experience, no. You *can* set your own boundaries, particularly if, when you’re on the job, you’re 100% on, and you’re clear about when you are and aren’t available – and if you really feel that you can’t set boundaries in your current organization, you might want to look for another job.

Related to that, beware false urgency. Just because Twitter and FB and email and smart phones make it possible for me to answer you in 30 seconds at any time of the day or night doesn’t mean that you actually need that. Have you ever noticed that if, say, you’re somewhere without Internet access for a few days, when you return to your email, there are THOUSANDS of messages? And if you start at the end of the various chains, you notice that 80% or more of the “issues” resolved themselves? There’s a lesson there.

Own your life (work and otherwise). Own your time. Make conscious choices about how you want to spend it and what’s important to you. Put down the iPhone every once in a while. Set your priorities and don’t let yourself be distracted from them by what’s new and shiny. It’s trite, but no one ever said, on her deathbed: “Why did I spent all that time with my friends and family? Why didn’t I spend more time on my Droid?”

Edited May 25 to add:  Amber Naslund (aka @ambercadabra) has a great blog post about how she keeps herself organized and together in 10 relatively simple (but not necessarily easy) steps.

3 thoughts on “Handling Information Overload”

  • Great post, Elizabeth. I've always considered myself to be a very speedy reader (with great retention, luckily) and I think I'm pretty on top of the information overload in my life – and it definitely does exist.

    I would be lost without my Google Reader (with blogs separated by topic, of course) and Delicious account. I bookmark things for future reference all the time. I know some people find RSS old-school (already!) but I find it helps keep me organized and sane.

    I do find myself reading fewer novels lately, which bums me out a bit. Guess that's what beach vacations are for!

  • Elizabeth:

    I have a different spin on this. Here's what I left as a comment on another blog discussing the same issue:

    I don’t walk into the library and feel information overload when there are hordes of books, magazines and articles begging to be read. I don’t log on to the Internet and immediately feel overwhelmed by the World Wide Web. I don’t go to Craig’s List and feel overwhelmed by all of the ads. As Clay Shirky says, “It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.”

    I think we blame information overload for something else: the rapid rate of digital change. The speed of change in this digital world requires individuals to learn anew, face novel conditions, and adapt at a record pace. Learning never ends. “How we know something” has changed radically versus “how we used to know something.” What’s right today could be wrong tomorrow. Change is the constant. Our minds are not hard wired for constant change so we have to learn some adaption skills.

    Today, we have to be able to unlearn something quickly or suffer the consequences. I believe that we mistakenly blame information overload as the reason we have to change. Today we have to learn how to judge reliable information and sources. It’s not so much about having to learn everything or read everything. It’s about filtering and judging which are important to our lives.

    Unlearning is a trait we should all embrace.

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