Ariadne | Information Overload Paper - 10 ways to cope

September 2, 2008 · · Posted by jfrank

Sarah Houghton-Jan wrote and excellent paper, Being Wired or Being Tired: 10 Ways to Cope with Information Overload, in Ariadne (a Web Magazine for Information Professionals). It's actually ten general areas for coping, each with about 5 suggestions. Ever since Kid 1 and Kid 2 popped into my life, dealing with every kind of overload (e-mail overload, magazine overload, chores overload, poop overload...) has become a factor in my life!

From her suggestions, the ones that I use rely on regularly are:

- Weed Baby Weed: I have to be choosy about which magazines, chores, activities and business objectives will get focused attention. To compensate, I try to take my head out of the sand (weekly or monthly) every so often to get a more global view and decide whether to make any changes. At work this means focusing on two sources of Tech news instead of ten, and relying on colleagues to fill me in on what I am missing. At home this means picking one house project at a time and then re-evaluating when its done.

- Schedule Unscheduled Work: There's a certain amount of admistrata that has to be done. These aren't things that would make any list of ten important items for the day, but they are as important as any other to you or someone else. Perhaps of greater issue is that it's these items floating around that distract you from the real objectives - so it's important to go about "house cleaning" to make sure your desk and e-mail box are uncluttered enough to keep out distractions when necessary.

- Unplug at Will / Schedule Unplugged Times: Big projects, or even single blog posts may take 10 minutes, an hour or a day of time without distractions. I work this kind of activity into my first hour before anyone is here, a late night, a trip to the cafe with my laptop, or a train or plane trip.

Some of my own strategies which are represented differently or not at all in her list:

- Write Informative, Complete E-Mail Subjects: Houghton suggests you should "Deal with E-Mail by Subject." Right on! But you need to be able to know the subject without opening the message. A reader ought to be able to know the full contents of any message based on its subject alone. For example, "Strategy Meeting on New Pricing - 2PM Thursday" is better than "Strategy Meeting." I get e-mails from event marketers all the time and could delete 90% without even opening them if I just saw the date, topic or location in the subject line. Kudos to Apple's Mail program which I use now (vs. Outlook) as it winnows down your e-mail box as you type in their search box. This way, If I want to focus on one category of activities, (e.g. everything having to do with KMWorld 2008 in September) I can at least filter easily by search term rather than scanning subject lines.

- Use the Right Channel for the Right Job (In Houghton's list, this falls under Use Email When Appropriate and Lobby for IM): To me, a perfectly good IM session reads like this:

"Got a sec?"

"y"

"Rrrr"

Interoffice IM is one of the best ways to quickly get answers when you need them or to simply see if someone is available to talk. In other cases, e-mail is better for off-line communication when you don't have a shared wiki or blog which is preferable for any business relevant communication or collaboration.

- Put Others First: In teamplay, you don't receive a ball and store it by the side of the court for a few hours or days - you pass it or, if you see an opening, run it down the court and shoot. The faster you can respond to messages and calls, the better off you are (because you don't lose time revisiting the same message 86 times before doing something about it, because the message doesn't distract you from other things) and your team is better off. The colleague that asks you a question is obviously involved in something NOW, so responding NOW means that they don't have to put down their work, suffer a major wait-time distraction, and continue later. So, taking 1 minute or 5 minutes now as a personal distraction may mean that another person or whole group can stay on track for hours rather than suffering wait-time in their process.

Supposing you can shut down some inputs, schedule the focused time you need to get your major work done and minor work out of the way, distractions are productive overall. This important point is underscored by the research I discuss in Multi-Tasking Turtles Beat Focused Hares. If distractions are important, the need is to build better personal disciplines and technical approaches to get better at managing them (e.g. through the right channel, IM or e-mail or phone). This discussion is one step (of many) forward!

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