Overcoming Information Overload

Strategies for Managing Information

Overcoming Information Overload - Strategies for Managing Information

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Get up to speed quicker by learning how to reduce information overload.

It usually begins as soon as you arrive at your office in the morning.

You have 68 new emails in your inbox, a podcast waiting on your iPod, two trade publications that you really need to read, a pile of company memos to address – and your BlackBerry indicates that voicemails are waiting for you.

It's going to be another "information overload" day.

For most of us, days like this are a regular occurrence. We often feel as though we're running to catch up with ourselves – because the information never stops.

You don't need us to tell you that there's lots and lots of irrelevant, outdated, and questionable information out there. Whether that information comes from the internet, a magazine, or a co-worker, you need the ability to sort through it all and determine what you need to keep – and what you can throw away.

So, what do you do with all this information? When does it become too much? And how can you manage it all so that you can be informed and productive – and still have some free time at the end of the day for a personal life?

This article looks at strategies to sort and manage relevant information – so the information doesn't end up managing you!

Reading Strategies

The ability to search for and find information you need, when you need it, is something that can be learned. And, since most information comes to you through the printed word, it's helpful to use effective reading strategies to identify and select what you need.

Follow these steps to manage the volume of information you need to read:

  1. Define what you need to know – When faced with an information source, ask yourself what exactly you need to get out of it. Do this for things that you read regularly, such as RSS feeds, trade magazines, and newspapers. If you don't know what you're supposed to be learning from a particular source, you may not need to read it.
  2. Decide how much you need to know – If you have a specific, definable reason for needing this information, how much of that information do you need? Are you reading just for general knowledge and awareness? Will this information help you make a decision? And can you 'skim' it quickly, or do you need to read it carefully and thoroughly?
  3. Choose the most important points – Now that you know how to read it, use some strategies for picking out exactly what you need. For instance, newspaper articles usually provide the most important information at the very beginning. Magazines might have the most important points in the middle of an article. See our article on reading strategies for more on this.

Separating Good Information From Bad

Identifying good – and bad – information can be difficult, especially online. Use these tips to identify reliable information quickly on the Internet:

  • Make sure the source is good – If the source is a well-known newspaper, magazine, or organization, then the information is probably good. Other sites, like blogs, can sometimes be less reliable.
  • Check the date – If you're not sure about the source, check to see when the website, or webpage, was last updated.
  • Determine the author – Is the author identified? What are the author's credentials? Does he or she have the education and experience to write with credibility on this topic? To find this information, look at the 'About' page, or the author's byline.
  • Look for workable links – Are facts backed up with hyperlinks to original sources? Do the links work? In magazines or journals, there are often footnotes or a bibliography page to provide sources for specific facts.
  • Check the copyrights – Has this information been published elsewhere? One way to check for copyright infringement is to copy and paste a paragraph of text into a search engine, such as Google.

Managing Email

Many people complain about too much email. During the day, it can be a constant flow. We may feel pressured to deal with it in the evening, just so we don't start work the next morning with 50 new messages, and another 50 that we haven't answered from the day before.

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So, how can we handle our email more efficiently? These tips can help:

  • Schedule email times – Set a schedule to check or download your email at certain times of day. Many experts say that two to three times per day is enough. Turn off your email pop-up reminders, and follow this schedule just as you would for meetings or appointments.
  • Skim and delete emails – When going through your email, do two skims – or quick reads – of your new messages. Immediately delete or file the messages you don't need to answer.
  • Create a 'response list' – When you find something that needs a reply, quickly write it down on a response list (yes, use real paper!) After you do the first skim of your list of new emails, reply one at a time to the people on your response list.
  • Respond briefly and effectively – Two tips can help you reply to emails.
    1. Briefly repeat, at the beginning of your message, what you're responding to. For example, if Jon asked you if he should reserve a hotel for the group's next conference, reply to him like this:
      Jon, you asked me if you should reserve a hotel for the next conference. Yes. See if the Hampton is available.
      This way, Jon won't have to look further down his original email message to remind himself what question you're answering.
    2. Make sure your response is short and to the point.
  • Don't necessarily respond to everything – Don't feel pressured to reply to every email that you receive, especially from people who have a habit of sending you long messages that aren't really relevant.
  • Schedule "no email" times – This might sound impossible to some people, but think about scheduling times during the day when you 'lock yourself out' of your email. Set aside times when you simply don't look at emails; perhaps even close the email program. This will give you some time to do actual work – without disruptions.

    Some technology companies use this strategy with their staff. They may have "Take a Break" buttons on their email programs, or "No Email Fridays." Many workers love these approaches!

Limiting Your Information

If you've signed up for 30 RSS feeds, and you download multiple podcasts every day – in addition to all the emails and voicemails you receive – you're probably trying to do too much. And this could hurt your productivity.

There's often nothing wrong with limiting your information – in fact, it's often a good thing. We live in a world that's 24/7/365, and you can't keep up with everything.

So, set limits for yourself. Decide that you'll regularly read a few high-quality blogs or websites, or a few trade journals – and let the rest go.

Key Points

Many of us are overwhelmed by the amount of information we have to process each day. However, several strategies can help you take control. Set a schedule to check your email at certain times during the day, and don't feel pressured to respond to everything in your inbox. If you need to reply to an email, be brief.

When you gather information online, make sure that the websites you read are reliable and up to date. And don't be afraid to set limits for yourself – you can't read everything, so determine what you really need to know, and then be selective.

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Comments (14)
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    Hi Andrew,
    Thanks for sharing your strategy for dealing with information! As you have just completed your university degree, I imagine this approach was used quite alot!

    I like the idea of scanning the mind map and filing it away under a folder for the book on Dropbox as it saves having numerous bits of paper filled away and then struggling to find that one particular bit!!

    Knowing that you are about to look for jobs now that you have graduated (well, assuming you pass all your exams ... which I know you will!), how could you use a similar approach for your job search?

    Midgie
  • Over a month ago andrewam wrote
    This is an excellent article and so very relevant!

    There's crippling amounts of information out there and you wouldn't even begin to skim the surface of it, even if you dedicated years of your life to it!

    As suggested in this article, I normally go through the following steps if I want to learn something:

    1. Ask myself why I need to learn to learn this and if it will really benefit me.

    2. Accept that for whatever I want to learn there will probably be hundreds of potential books, magazines, blogs and so forth that I could read.

    3. Knowing I can't possibly read all of it (even if I wanted to), carefully look at the credentials of the authors and have a look at reviews on Amazon and GoodReads.com (although I never take these too seriously, as I've read some great books people said were awful!).

    4. Read through the book and make MindMaps on the essential points.

    5. Scan my MindMaps onto my computer and upload them to Dropbox in a folder for that particular book.

    6. Review my notes as regularly as I need to benefit from the material.

    I think the key thing here is truly accepting that the most effective people are the ones that realise they can't learn and read everything and instead carefully select what they can, to benefit as much as possible from it.

    Happy learning!
  • Over a month ago Yolande wrote
    Excellent point you make, Marat... Knowing how to filter information and only extracting what you really need is almost an art - and it's so easy to get caught up in pages and endless pages of interesting but useless info!

    Cheers
    Yolandé
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