Personal Information Overload-Fighting Strategies

The Information Overload Research Group (IORG) and the Basex Information Overload Network (ION) had its joint quarterly meeting on April 7.  The topic for the meeting was individual Information Overload-fighting strategies and participants brought a wide range of interesting ideas with them.

Please, tell me what to do!

Nathan Zeldes, IORG’s president, spoke about the value of e-mail management strategies such as checking e-mail only once a day, in his case at lunch, and setting up a folder system that separates messages into those that must be dealt with immediately, today, or can be followed up on later.  Another point he stressed is that e-mail should not be used as a to-do list.

Zeldes also discussed how the use of tools, such as using a powerful indexing search engine to quickly find e-mail messages or off-loading as much as possible to RSS feeds, which can help to reduce the frustrations that arise from an overloaded and unwieldy inbox.

Jonathan Spira, IORG’s vice president for research and Basex’ chief analyst, talked about how the use of multiple monitors generally increased his productivity, but how on some occasions, when under deadline or when needing to focus exclusively on one task, he will turn off the extra screen and just use one display to complete his task.

Other tools that were mentioned in the discussion included Twitter.  Maura Thomas, a principal at Burget Avenue Management Services, uses Twitter as a search tool to find relevant information, instead of browsing through headlines and RSS feeds.  She related her experience with using the service to reduce the amount of time she would have to spend looking for information that interests her; she uses Twitter to follow people who are focused on what is relevant to her and are knowledgeable in the areas of her interests.

The use of Twitter to fight Information Overload sounds like a contradiction in terms but Thomas stressed that Twitter is like any other tool and only interrupts if you let it.  In this same vein, she noted that the key to managing Information Overload is to take control and go on the offensive; do not allow yourself to be stuck in a defensive position where you are only reacting.

The issue of control was reiterated by several speakers, including Lesa Becker, director of organizational learning and development at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, and Paul Silverman, president of Integra Workshops.  Both advocated taking control of one’s information flow through mindfulness, meaning being aware of the present moment and not letting ourselves be distracted by stray thoughts, and by being conscious of the impact of the choices we make.  This includes carefully picking what technology, such as Twitter, to be involved in, based on the impact it has on you.  For some, a service such as Twitter may be helpful, for others, it may be a torrent of extraneous and irrelevant information.  Nancy Snell chimed in on this to note that Information Overload is not going to stop, so the only option is to begin making individual choices to reduce its impact.

Silverman also offered a suggestion for getting more done in a day, namely to do “the worst thing first.”  He explained that this strategy pays off because it allows the knowledge workers to take control of their day, get the most pressing and/or nagging task(s) done, and hopefully regain focus for the rest of the day by not having to spend time dreading that particularly nasty task.

Another key point that was articulated multiple times was that a knowledge worker has the ability to disengage from technology tools, as well as limit the impact those tools have on the inbox to reduce their level of Information Overload.  Jared Goralnick, CEO of AwayFind, and Bill Kirwin, vice president of research at both advocated strategies such as turning off e-mail notifications from social networks, sending less e-mail so as to receive less e-mail, and generally reducing the amount of incoming information by reducing the amount of outgoing information.

A discussion of what participants learnt from the meeting is taking place on the Basex Information Overload Network’s LinkedIn page.  Feel free to join in.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

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