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Information Overload: Why You Won’t Read This Newsletter

More than half of the subscribers who receive this newsletter won’t even open the email. I can understand why: you’ve only got a limited amount of time, and you have to be selective about how you use it. But let’s be honest; are you really being selective? Or are you just randomly reading some things and not others? Being selective implies some logic behind your selection process. Do you have any logic behind your own approach for coping with information overload?

Once upon a time, a century or so ago, there was actually a shortage of information. In small towns, people would even interrogate strangers passing through just to find out what was going on in the world. Those days are long gone, and today we have the reverse problem. There’s too much information in the world. Everyone is telling you that they have the solution to your problems, even if they don’t know what your problems are. Magazines bombard you with subscription offers, and some of the publications are so specialized that you wonder how they can find more than a few people who are interested in the topic.

Are You Thrashing?
“Thrashing” is the term used to describe a computer operating system which is being overwhelmed by handling an excessive number of user requests. When a computer is thrashing, it’s spending too much time on the system overhead of swapping user tasks in and out of memory, and not enough time on getting productive work done for the users. You can thrash too, when you spend too much time handling trivial day-to-day details, and you don’t focus on what’s truly important.

An Approach for Dealing with Information Overload
1. Pick one or two periodicals sources that you’ll use as your primary source of news (When I wrote this article in 2005, I used ComputerWorld for technology news and Business Week for business news. These days I rely on a few trusted Twitter feeds to steer me toward important Internet articles.). Subscribe to other magazines sources if you like (many are free to “qualified subscribers”), but just open them up long enough to scan their table of contents to see if anything catches your eye. If you see something interesting, tear out the article capture it with Evernote or Pocket, and put it in a folder use keywords to label it for later reading whenever you have a spare moment – maybe on an airplane or while you’re in a waiting room somewhere. Then every so often toss delete the older stuff that you haven’t read.

2. Use your own people as information collectors. Have people volunteer to be the focal point for collecting information about certain topics that are important to you and your business, like one person for new software development breakthroughs and another person for new developments in a specific technology. Have the volunteers summarize their findings at a periodic meeting.

3. Don’t be a source of information overload for others. I’ve seen too many managers route or forward information that they don’t bother to read themselves. If something isn’t worth your time, then think carefully about whether it’s worth the time of someone else in your organization. You’re not helping your employees to focus if you’re overwhelming them with things to read. You should filter the information you disseminate based on your strategy and direction. If you have a personal information overload problem, then make sure you solve it. Don’t just pass it along to your employees.

4. If anything significant happens in your company, make sure to summarize it at your employee meetings. If your people know you’ll keep them up-to-date, then they won’t have to waste as much time keeping their ear to the ground or reading all those internal puff pieces distributed to employees by your company communications department.

5. Remember that focus is the key to success. Focus on the information that you need based on your strategy and direction. Ignore almost everything else. Your knowledge and expertise is useless if you don’t apply it to something relevant to your business.

6. Schedule a certain amount of time each month to evaluate your progress toward increased focus. Think about how things are better or worse than last month, and determine why. Take steps to do better the following month.

7. Continue to read articles like this one which provide you with ideas, insight and motivation for improvement. Even better, discuss them with co-workers and share your views.

8. Send this newsletter to your boss, and you’ll benefit from the improvements your boss makes in his/her own information overload.

Don’t blame the volume of information you receive – information overload comes from poor self-management and lack of focus. If you know how to swim, you can swim in water of any depth, even in the middle of the ocean. Dealing with information overload works the same way – you only drown if you let the water overwhelm you, but if you stay on top of it, you’ll be fine.

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