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Making Sense Of Information Overload

Who among us, periodically if not constantly, doesn’t feel overwhelmed by the volume of new information to which we’re exposed? The daily onslaught that each of us faces would prove challenging for even the wisest figures in history. Each week, more than 3,000+ books are published just in the U.S. alone, and each day, well over 2,000 are published throughout the world.

Despite the widespread use of the Internet, mobile devices, and communication technology in general, and paradoxically because of it, millions of pages are produced daily. Yes, we have the capability to extract timely and relevant information that supports our lives and careers in ways our predecessors could not conceive. At the same time, the vast majority of information to which we’re exposed is of little or no value to us, and even if it was, we would have to live multiple lifetimes to take advantage of it.

Against this backdrop, how do we both recognize and organize the information
that is appropriate and useful to us? Here is a plan for taking charge of the over-communication streams you and your organization face.

Identify the Type of Information You Need

All organizations, as well as individuals, have a fair idea as to the kind of information they need to be gathering. This includes information about their own profession or industry; the significant products, services and developments; relevant as well as pending legislation; customers, client, or consumer information; competitor information; special applications, breakthroughs, and prospects for the future.

Identify the Key Information Carriers

In every industry, there are a handful of key publications, news sources, websites, blogs, and other purveyors that represent the cream of the crop in terms of accuracy, completeness of coverage, timeliness, and reliability. If there are 10 or scores of information purveyors in your field, rest assured that the top 3-5 often account for and will provide coverage of 80% to 90% of what all the others could collectively provide.

How is this so? There is considerable overlap, redundancy, meta-reporting, and outright lifting of news between sources. Thus, there is a need to focus on the highest sources of information in your profession or industry.

Streamline Your Systems

Having identified the type of information you need and the best sources for providing it, everything is for naught unless you have a way to receive, synthesize, disseminate, and apply that information so that it benefits you or your organization. Too many individuals and groups over-file, over-catalog, over-collect, and over-download. Your goal is to keep information flows as simple as possible.

Stay focused on your strategic objectives. What do you seek to achieve, and what information supports that quest? This is not to say you cannot devote attention to ancillary issues, but more often than not, keeping your eyes on the prize and staying focused will help you to achieve goals more effectively than any other way of proceeding.

Be Kind to One Another

Much of the information glut that we all experience comes as a result of not having guidelines in place within our own organization that could otherwise spare us from unnecessary exposure to data, reports, and verbiage in general that does not support the challenges at hand. Each of us needs to be kinder and more thoughtful in disseminating information to one another.

At the level of individual email correspondents, eliminate buzzwords, acronyms, and abbreviations that could be misunderstood or misleading. Limit the length of the correspondents to those phrases, sentences, or paragraphs that are vital to ensuring that the proper message is received, but have the intellectual tenacity to spare the recipient of any excess. Encourage one another to avoid cc-ing and bcc-ing individuals who do not need to be in the loop.

Avoid sending FYI types of information altogether. Keep attachments to a minimum. Include executive reports, briefings, and summaries that enable the recipient to understand the essence of what larger documents contain. In short, it is possible within your own organization and your own team members to aid each other in combating information overload.

Forsake Information Crutches

Much of the information we encounter and retain in some manner supports what we already know, believe, and don’t need to retain yet again. With much of the information you need to assemble in support of a report you are reporting, a presentation you will be making, and so on, you’re often a few keystrokes away from identifying the crucial statistic of data that you need to support your efforts.

Hanging onto reams of hard copy information, or files and files of online information in anticipation of future needs is of increasingly limited value. What’s more, anything you’ve been retaining that is older than 18-24 months, more than likely, can be deleted without reservation.

Establish an Effective Channel

The higher up you are in your organization or further along in your career, the less often you should be burdened with information collection duties that could otherwise be ably handled by more junior staff. Whether you realize it or not, even your most junior staff person in short order can be taught to effectively collect much of the information you previously assembled.

Your staff can serve as pre-readers, clipping service, and information scouts all rolled into one. Freed up from mundane, serial tasks of assembling information, you are then able to engage in conceptual thinking that helps to lead your team, department, or division, especially when it comes to novel endeavors such as launching a new product or service.

Systemize Your Responses

In the course of any career professional’s life, a variety of routine responses will emerge that should be saved as part of your email signature capability. Most popular email software programs support 20 or more different signatures.

Thus, you can compose and retain signatures in particular categories so as to be able to respond quickly and effectively to inquirers. Pre-identified signatures could include standard letters, rosters, price lists, descriptions, credentials, background, and history. The more you automate your system, the faster and more effectively you can respond to a correspondent. Any signature on file obviously can be adapted to address specific inquiries as they arrive.

Establish a Paper Reduction Plan

While the specific types of hard copy documents required for retention vary from industry to industry, in the aggregate, we can each make a concerted effort to pare down the amount of paper that we retain in our desks, filing cabinets, and offices. For each document you receive that merits retention, evaluate its potential as a scanned document. If the scanned version of the document will serve just as well as the hard copy, then scan it and recycle the hard copy.

While the act of scanning in itself requires a few extra minutes and is labor intensive, the long-term payoff is more than worth the initial investment. Based on the way you label the documents you’ve scanned, your ability to find them on your hard drive or online, often vastly exceeds your ability to find the same document in a hard copy file.

Effective computer backup systems take on an advanced role in an age in which it makes sense to reduce the physical holdings of reports, documents, and sheets of paper.

Continually Review, Evaluate, Update, and Apply

All of the information that you retain, on a periodic basis needs to be reassessed for its applicability. Such reviews, especially for data that has been retained in electronic files, can be done relatively quickly and easily. Here, the rule is divide and conquer. Pick one section of your date collection for review per week. What can safely be dropped? What needs to be merged? What can be synthesized so that the few pearls of wisdom crucial to operations can be easily extracted and disseminated, while the bulk of the information or raw data can stay safely parked as an electronic file or, if the situation merits, be deleted?

The most effective information managers are in the habit of constantly updating and eliminating, merging and purging, and synthesizing and applying the vital information that they chose to collect in the first place.

Recognize the Value of Staying Organized

Keeping your information organized is not a glamorous task and for many provokes a sense of anxiety. Yet, as we march forward in this brave new over-communicated world, becoming and remaining the master of your files takes on a higher level of importance than ever before. The future will belong to those career professionals who are adept at identifying, collecting, storing, retrieving, and disseminating the right information at the right time.

Devoting a few minutes per day, perhaps no more than one to two hours per week to keeping track of all that you deem necessary to retain, is becoming the differentiating factor between those individuals who receive raises, promotions, and recognition by leadership versus those who dwell in a semi-permanent state of overwhelm.

The future belongs to effective executives who have encompassed the notion of appropriate information management, and regardless of the size, budget, or other resources, are consistently able to point the organization in the right direction, as a result of the information they have assembled, the knowledge they extract from it, and the wisdom they are able to share.

Jeff Davidson

Jeff Davidson is "The Work-Life Balance Expert®" and the premier thought leader on work-life balance, integration, and harmony. Jeff speaks to organizations that seek to enhance their overall productivity by improving the effectiveness of their people.