Warning: Information Overload

While spending time on my mid-year review, I spent some time focusing on an ongoing problem for many of us: information overload.

As I prepare to write my Master’s paper in the next few months, I am trying to become more skilled at personal information management. There are lots of tools to help us manage information, but I’ve learned that a critical part of our own personal information management system involves filtering. That’s right, simply choosing to be smart about what information we allow into our space. If we are trying to process too much information, we will find ourselves quickly overwhelmed.

Here are a couple of steps I am employing to help me manage and filter the flow of information coming at me right now:

  • Avoid web (meaningless) browsing. This is not only a source of a tremendous amount of meaningless information, but is also great time waster. For many of us with a “geek” mentality, this is a tough one. I would rather browse the web, for example, than watch television. Still, if I am sensing I am getting close to information overload, it’s time to log off and shut down. When I do hit the web, I try to do so with purpose. Within my GTD system I have established a @Web category that helps me spend time on topics that will advance a goal or project one more step. I’ve also learned it’s a good idea to have a pen and sheet of paper on the desk while working on the web. When an idea crosses my mind that I need to look into further, I write it down and put it on my @Web list as opposed to dropping what I am doing and jumping to a new topic. Understand that by its very nature, the Web is meant for browsing. Every paragraph we read can contain hyperlinks that open a new browser window and open an entirely new topic. It’s easy to loose direction. Trust me, I’ve been there. Still, with a little discipline, you can begin to tame the web and provide more purpose to your browsing experience.
  • Unsubscribe. We all love something free, and invariably, as we come across blogs or sites that seem to provide good free content, we pop in our email address or subscribe with our blog reader and wait for all of that free information to start flowing into our inbox. Over time, however, you know what happens: suddenly you have dozens of emails hitting your inbox every day from people you don’t even know. Moreover, all of this free information is actually costing you a lot of time to process. This is where it’s important to take control. Part of my semi-annual review is to go through my inbox and my RSS reader and unsubscribe from lists I am no longer interested in. How can I tell if I’m no longer interested in a list? Simple, if I have ceased reading the blog entries or emails from a certain site, it’s time to unsubscribe. This past week, for example, I reviewed my Google Reader subscriptions and found more than 100 feeds I was no longer reading on a regular basis. It took less than an hour, but I had brought my Google Reader subscription list down to a more manageable 80 feeds from the nearly 200 I was subscribed to.

While researching / reading on this topic, I came across the following article from Seth Gillespie on “How to cope with information overload.He provides the following advice:

  • Alter your work routines. It’s very easy to become a victim of your routines. The insatiable need for more information is one of them.
  • Plan your day and prioritize your time. This is often an impossible goal, for many people. But it’s an important first step that can help you focus your energy on what’s most important.

  • Cut your phone time. The average worker would be shocked if he knew how much time is wasted on the phone. And a relatively small amount of time is spent on important calls. A Reuters survey said that 20 percent of all voice-mail time is spent fumbling through menus.

  • Manage e-mail. Respond only to important e-mails. Get rid of all junk e-mails. Simply respond by indicating your wish to be removed from the mailing list, and make sure you have a good spam filter.

  • Monitor your Internet time. Most of us waste hours on the Internet. It’s very easy to get lost and distracted when searching for something. Stay focused so that your Internet searches are targeted. It wouldn’t be wasting time to learn Boolean search terms. This will narrow your searches, and cut your Internet time dramatically.

  • De-clutter your desk. Regardless of where it comes from, the average worker is still drowning in paper–most of which he doesn’t need. Look around your desk and office, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you discover that a healthy percentage of the paper that’s been piling up can be trashed, and the rest can be filed for future use. Ideally, your desk should be clear. It should contain only what is pertinent to what you are working on at the moment or during the next couple of days. If you tend to let things pile up, it’s a wonderfully cleansing feeling to see only what’s important at the moment in front of you.

  • At home, try to disconnect from the office. If possible, try not to take work home. For most career builders, work becomes an obsession–and it’s often not necessary to take work home. For many compulsive overachievers, it’s hard to disconnect from the office and its routines and change your rhythms so you can focus your energy and attention on fulfilling non-work related routines.

  • Pursue a hobby, sport or interest–anything that’s not work-related.

  • Shut off your cell phone or Blackberry when you get home. If your job doesn’t demand that you be on call 24 hours a day, make it a rule to shut off your cell phone or Blackberry at a certain hour, say, 7 or 8 p.m.

What are some steps you employ to help you manage information overload?

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