Many of the problems caused by information overload stem from trying to absorb and retain too much. Learn to be selective about what you expose yourself to. The people who feel most overwhelmed often have a belief that they need to keep up with every new advance in their field, keep up with every relevant magazine, attend every conference, hold onto every article (in the often-mistaken belief that they’ll go back to it at a later date), and generally try and run a mini-library in their field.
Decide what areas you absolutely need to know about, and eliminate the rest. Remove yourself from unnecessary subscriptions, ask to be taken off mailing lists you don’t now get value from (including e-zine lists and newsgroups), and discard material that in your heart-of-hearts you know you’re not going to need again. (It’s taken me a few years, but I’ve finally chucked out old marketing texts from my extra-mural studies through Massey Uni back in the early 1980’s!)
Don’t just eliminate junk – keep your office free of overstayers
Ever done a big clean up in your office, stepped back and thought, ‘Well, I’ve finished. Now I don’t need to think about that for a while’? And then, a few weeks later the pristine condition is nothing but a rapidly fading memory.
The big temptation for folk, once they’ve got their environment cleaned out, is to think the job is done, and relax. In fact, we never can. In one of my very early ‘Win the paper war’ courses a CEO, after listening to the tales of woe of the other participants, suddenly announced with satisfaction, ‘Now I know why I have to work such long hours, Robyn. If I turn my back on the stuff it breeds.’ A roll of laughter swept around the room – they all understood exactly what he was talking about.
Ask anyone with an organised office if it comes naturally to be uncluttered. If they have a half-way busy life most of them will assure you that it is a conscious decision to stay that way, coupled with good old self-discipline. A group of senior credit managers attended one of my speeches. Afterwards one man came up to chat. ‘I run an extremely busy office, with many demands on my time. The key that has kept me with a reputation for being a good time manager is a simple one. Wherever possible I act immediately. Most people say, ‘I’ll do something about it later’ or ‘leave it with me’, and of course all the ‘laters’ pile up around them, weigh them down, and make them feel less effective (and they are!). No matter how much I feel like deferring a decision or an action, wherever possible I push myself to handle it on the spot.’
Key Point. Do it fast, and do it now
Don’t major in minor things
There is one qualifying comment on this though. I’m not suggesting that we spend our lives puddling around in piles of low-level paper. It’s more about knowing when to do what – we’re in charge of our own choices. If I really don’t have time (or choose not) to make decisions and or action a pile of material, I put everything together in one pile and place it behind me on my desk return. I don’t want it to dominate my actions whilst I’m engaged on something of the highest priority, and I don’t want to forget it either. The key is not to forget to go back. As soon as you finish the priority task you’re working on, make sure you take a few minutes to check the pile and make the relevant decisions.
As I write these words, it is 6.15am on a beautiful salmon-pink Sydney morning. I love to write first thing in the morning, and then can happily get on with the rest of my day’s work. This morning as I walked into my office there was a small pile of information from a network function I’d attended last night. I was just too tired to put it away when I’d returned, so had emptied the briefcase but left the information on my desk. (Yep, I’m not perfect either!)
This morning I could have acted on it immediately I arrived at my desk, but guess what would happen if I did that? Chances are, these words would not have been written today. That little pile would have distracted me, and the wordsmithing that goes on at this keyboard would have at best being reduced, or at worst deferred. In another few hours the phones will start to ring, the rest of life will flood gladly in, and the comfortable deadline for this article would have become a stressor.
So I made a choice, and placed the little pile behind me. As I sit here, although I know there is something there, it is not a distraction because I can’t see it. When I start my regular day’s work I’ll action the heap.
What is your highest priority? Do that first, and don’t be sidetracked by less important matters.
Key point. Don’t major in minor things – keep focused on the big picture, or all your pictures will be little ones.
So how can we keep the management of our paper and information simple and achievable? Look at the chunks. What is the process? What are the key elements?
Key Point. Any time a task seems too big or too difficult, break it into small pieces and suddenly it becomes much easier. All we need to know is the process, and the execution becomes simple. (It might need some work, however!)
I had this point rammed home very strongly. I have never seen myself as an artist, but am always fascinated and admiring of anyone else’s artistic abilities, and love many aspects of art. A chance came up to attend a cartooning workshop. I decided it would be a useful skill to have as a facilitator, educator and public speaker, so, rather sceptical of the claim that I would have the basics of cartooning down pat in 2 & 1/2 hours, spent my money and rocked up for the course. To my absolute astonishment, the claim was true. Dave Hackett, the very clever cartoonist who ran the course, just chunked the process down into small bite-sized pieces. He gave us a starting point – the eyes – and together we just explored how to add and take away the various elements. He demystified the whole thing, and I walked away a believer! Now I just have to practice.
Our information-handling habits are no more nor less than that – purely a process.
How to keep your head above water
No matter how overwhelming the volume, there are only four things we can do with written information, either electronic or physical – Read, Act, File and Throw. Think of it as a RAFT – if you add all four activities together your raft will keep you floating upon the ever-flowing sea of paper and information under which you run the daily risk of drowning. If you’ve got a copy of my book, you might like to re-read Chapter 13, which goes into the topic in more depth.