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Managing Information Overload

3 ways to cope with information overload


Technology always advances at a greater pace than we mere mortals can keep up with. An article in IEEE Computer Magazine, in fact, demonstrated a new type of burnout in today's high-tech world: emotional and cognitive overload in the face of so much digital technology. In other words, so much information, so little time and mental capacity. "Information fatigue syndrome" has actual physical as well as psychological symptoms.

There are, however, ways to manage and even -- according to another IEEE article -- beat information overload. The key is not in eliminating the amount of information you can access, but making the data more relevant for and in sync with your personal productivity systems and goals.

Here are 3 ways to cope with information overload

  1. Switch from "push" to "pull" information delivery. A lot of us think that always being reachable is beneficial to our professional lives. We have BlackBerrys or iPhones or other devices that constantly stream (push) emails, text messages, RSS feeds, Facebook updates, tweets, and more to us throughout the day. This constant communication, however, may be causing us to be constantly distracted and swamped with minutiae at the least opportune moments. Our devices are never off and, therefore, neither are we.

    A better practice would be to download (pull) the messages when you need them and are best able to respond to or act on the information -- not on the fly in knee-jerk reaction every 5 minutes. Instead of having your smartphone or email program automatically download messages and bleep at you every so often, set it up so you manually retrieve the data when you're ready to deal with it.

  2. Use available filters to reduce the amount of information you're presented with. Google is a favored search tool for many because it quickly weeds down -- out of a gazillion web pages -- the (usually) most pertinent information based on your input. If you want to save time and be more productive, you need a Google-like solution for all of the data you access.

    In your email program (Outlook or Thunderbird, for example, or even cloud-based email programs like Gmail), you can set up advanced filters to tag or move messages from/to certain email addresses or with specific words in the subject or at certain times -- and so on -- into separate folders. Filter your email so that those marked important or from specific people get your attention first -- and use your spam filter judiciously.

    Likewise, if you follow a lot of blogs, categorize them in your RSS reader and set aside a "must read" folder for those select blogs you should check before all the others.

  3. Set up "quiet times" -- periods when you can think and plan without interruption. "Fasting" from data can help you maintain your creativity and avoid burning out. Don't worry that you'll have more information to catch up on when you get back from your refresher -- if you have good filters in place, only the most important data should be in your processing pile. (For further fasting help, see Gina Tripani's book of Lifehacker tips, Upgrade Your Life (check prices), which includes one chapter dedicated to "firewalling your attention".)

    Ideal periods to set aside for information-free times include mornings when you first start up working, a couple of hours over the weekend, or, at the very least, the majority of your vacation time.

By the same token, make sure you're not contributing to the cycle of information overload for others. Before hitting the "Reply to All" button, forwarding messages, or sharing your Farmvillle updates, please make sure the recipient really needs that additional information.

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