There’s a silent epidemic sweeping through your organization. It’s spread from one person to another. This infection is dangerous, not because it can’t be cured, but because most of the time we’re powerless to stop it. I’m talking about information overload.
When most people hear the words “infection” and “information overload” together they usually discount the information. They approach information overload like it’s a benign problem.
As if it’s an easy fix.
Every day, information overload threatens to ruin your career.
Miss a critical piece of information and your organization could be hurt or affected negatively. Fail to share the information your co-workers need and your entire team may suffer. Fail to keep up with the demand and you may miss something critical.
We’re drowning in information.
The problem seems to be accelerating. We’re bombarded with more and more information, while receiving less time to process it. What’s worse, it’s affecting our health and limiting our ability to do our jobs. A research study in Britain found:
- Over a third (35%) feel that having to keep up with today’s “information overload” leaves them feeling stressed out, unable to relax and anxious
- Two thirds (65%) say that the need to keep track of a great deal of information is a “major concern” in their lives
A similar study was conducted with managers from United States, England, Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia. A whopping 73 percent of them felt they needed enormous amounts of information to do their jobs well. Yet, these same managers reported that information overload hurt them
- 33 percent felt they were suffering from poor health due to information overload.
- 66 percent reported tension with their co-workers and management as well as reduced job satisfaction.
- 62 percent admitted their social and professional relationships were suffering.
Information overload is a large problem that only continues to get worse.
Most people don’t recognize the signals, symptoms and signs of information overload.
They suffer in silence, believing that there’s something wrong with them. That they’re less capable than their peers. Professionals struggling with information overload are typically ambitious, highly driven people who:
- Feel they’re at the end of their rope
- Have trouble sleeping
- Are anxious, irritable and unfocused
- Feel stressed out
- Are overwhelmed by life
What makes this so difficult to treat is the cause. Information overload is different from person to person, the cause manifests itself in very different ways.
This naturally leads us to ask, what causes information overload?
The cause of information overload may surprise you.
When asked about the cause of information overload, our natural inclination is to simply state the obvious. The cause of information overload is too much information.
There’s more to it than that.
In fact, the problem is less about the information and more about our response to information.
What does that mean exactly?
- Expectations around information have changed. Expectations regarding response times have shifted dramatically. We used to have a few days or weeks to respond to a particular piece of information (e.g. message, request, learning, etc.) Now we’re expected to respond in seconds (sms), minutes (slack) and days (email). The demands placed on us have grown exponentially.
- Information based demand has grown. First one in, last one out is the expected standard at many organizations. We’re expected to take our work home with us. Thanks to smartphones, social networks, smart TVs, and IoT devices, we’re constantly flooded with information. Our employers expect us to work days, nights and weekends.
- We’re left with little to no time to re-charge. We’re expected to work faster, harder and longer. Our performance is expected to grow exponentially. We’re expected to take in more information, to do more with less, but we’re not given the tools and resources we need to accomplish that.
What complicates things further is the amount of information we’re forced to deal with on a daily basis.
- 5 Quintillion bytes of data is created every day.
- Every two days we create as much information from the dawn of civilization up until 2003.
- By 2020, 1.7 megabytes of new information will be created every second, for every human being on the earth.
- Only 0.5 percent of all data is ever analyzed or used.
The causes of information overload comes down to people.
- The information processing limitations of each person
- Our attitude, motivation and/or satisfaction
- State of mind/condition (e.g. are we hungry, tired, cold, anxious, etc.)
- A failure on the part of the sender to properly screen, filter or evaluate the information they’re sending.
- Poor writing/communication skills of the sender
- Subpar comprehension skills of the receiver
- Requesting too much information / joining too many groups, organizations, etc.
- Seeing information as a problem rather than a part of the job
- Using information to achieve power and control
Yes, the explosion of information we’re dealing with is unprecedented. This information explosion would be overwhelming on its own, but bad habits make everything much worse.
Our own bad habits amplify the overload damage.
Information isn’t the same as information overload.
It’s a key distinction that needs to be made.
Much of this information was either available and unused, or available but inaccessible.
Information simply amplifies our existing habits.
We’re forced to find ways to cope with information overload. The problem with some of these habits is that they create more overload, decrease productivity and overall performance.
- Any and all information is saved regardless of its value, purpose or relevance.
- Once overloaded, these deleters destroy information without analyzing or evaluating it.
- These people request all information, but refuse to read or do anything with it.
- These people analyze and examine all information but are paralyzed by it and unable to make a decision.
- As their name suggests, these people oppose innovation and advancement in any form.
- Power users. These people are adept at using the information they receive but they require it in a customized format.
- These people recognize the value of information, see it for what it is and are able to use it for maximum benefit.
- These are the glass-is-half-full optimists who see the value of information, choosing to see/use information as a beneficial tool.
Here’s the surprising thing about these bad habits.
They all have their place in the organization. There is a time to hoard information, a time to share it and a time to delete information.
There’s even a time to ignore information.
But our habits, the very same habits that govern how we use and work with this deluge of information, this is the piece that typically leads to information overload.
It’s less about combating information overload and more about forming good habits around information. There are several strategies you can use to relieve overload. You can work with massive amounts of data, demands and pressure and maintain your sanity.
It starts with relevance.
You can’t fight information overload. You can only hope to contain it.
It’s a common mistake for some people to place their hope in technology. They believe technology alone will solve the problem of information overload. But, if futurists are right, the problem of information overload is only going to get worse.
By 2020, some futurists predict information will double every 70 days.
What does this mean?
Fighting information overload isn’t the solution to your problem. Okay… So, what is the solution?
While technology will play a crucial role in information management, the primary solution will come down to our choices, habits and responses. Here are a few strategies you can take to manage information overload.
Changing your perception of a task by changing the medium, method or platform you use to work on that task. For example, printing out a document and working with it outside vs. reading the same document on your computer screen at your desk.
Delegating tasks to the right/relevant teammate or co-worker, rather than taking it on ourselves. This is easy enough to understand, until you realize that on average, 20 percent of the people in your organization are doing roughly 80 percent of the work, which in all likelihood includes you.
This involves making yourself unavailable at a set time, or for specific tasks every day. If you’re writing ad copy for example, you change your status on Slack to unavailable, close your email client and turn off your phone. This focuses your attention on the piece of information that matters most. What you’re working on right now.
Using metrics like trustworthiness, conciseness, accuracy, etc. to gauge the reliability of an information source. If you’re offered data from multiple sources, you can use metrics and various standards to filter out the sources you don’t want. This is frightening at first because there’s an unspoken fear lurking behind the scenes. “What if I miss something important?” Implementing this strategy takes a little bit of faith. If you miss something and you’re alerted to that fact, refine your filtering criteria so you catch the information that matters, then continue.
People are admittedly terrible at multi-tasking, so it’s ideal if you can focus your attention on one thing. If you have to multi-task in order to manage information overload, train yourself to do it properly. Work to create leverage where and when you can. For example, if you’re downloading or uploading data you can quickly finish any outstanding or additional to-dos. Use apps, machines and support where and when you can.
Information isn’t created equal. At any given point you may find that one task is more important than another. Sometimes that requires dropping what you’re working on. Other times you’re required to say No to someone asking you for help with something less important. This isn’t rocket science and it’s probably something you’ve heard before. Here’s the part most people miss. Prioritization never ends. It’s easy for us to prioritize our tasks, to plan out our day. Then life comes along and ruins our plans. Change is a signal to re-prioritize.
Some projects won’t be completed in time. Other projects may require input from stakeholders or co-workers. Queuing successfully means you’re able to do what you can, where you can. Complete the to-do items you can do, giving tasks in your queue your full attention. Out of queue, out of mind.
Some requests, tasks and people should be ignored. If they’re not relevant to your work, you’re not helping someone on your team (or in your network), it’s a good idea to quickly delegate to-dos to someone else. If it’s not a fit and you know you shouldn’t be doing that or that it’s someone else’s job, finding a way to reject the request outright is a wise idea. If you’re not in a position to change that, change departments or work to find a different job.
- Satisfice (yes, that’s a word).
You’ve probably heard the saying “Perfect is the enemy of good.” If you’re like me, that sounds like an absolutely terrible idea. Conscientious workers strive for perfection. Perfection induces overload. A healthy compromise? Strive for perfection in stages. Iterate wherever and whenever you can.
Changing perceptions and attitudes about the job. Your thoughts create your emotions, your emotions dictate your emotional and psychological health. Change your thoughts on the information you’re working with and you change its effects on your mind body and health.
Use tools like Google Keep, Evernote or Pocket to save, track and annotate the web pages and content you come across. Use these tools to tag content with standardized keywords you can use to find them later. Add notes, share information and store it in a format that works best for you.
Information overload will get worse…
If we fail to adopt the right behaviors, habits and choices. Information is on track to double every 70 days, with no signs of slowing down. Want to get a handle on information overload?
Learn to manage the information you receive.
Using the strategies and tactics we’ve discussed, you have the tools and resources you need to eliminate overload and maximize productivity.
The secret to managing overload?
Work with information that’s directly and indirectly related to what you’re doing, when you’re doing it. Do your best to eliminate, filter out or block irrelevance. Do what you can to ensure that the information you need is available to you when you need it.
It takes practice, requires discipline and depends on patience.
How To Keep Information Overload From Hurting You…
As long as it’s managed well. Information overload is sweeping through your organization, through the people and groups around you. It’s spread from one person to another – infecting those who are unprepared and unwilling to change.
You have an opportunity.
Information, when it’s managed well, creates opportunity. The vast majority of people around you are drowning in excess data. Their poor choices, bad habits and responses create overload. If you choose to be different, if you make the right choices, create good habits and work to control your responses, information overload becomes a thing of the past.
But it’s all based on relevance.
Create the right structure, focus on relevance and you’ll find you had the cure all along.