Preventing Information Overload

Over the last 10 years I have developed training and advice to help people make the most of their time at work, to get more done but also to find a good balance between work and life. Sometimes the biggest problem is not with having too much work to do, it’s failing to prioritize the work and find ways to focus and get stuff done.  On this page I will share with you some simple tips you can apply to improve your personal productivity, by achieving the following:

  • Manage all communications
  • Process and store information efficiently
  • Simplify time management

Inbox 2 Zero (all of them!)

The volume of information we receive on a daily basis can fluctuate depending on what we are focused on doing. Sometimes the problem can be we don’t have enough information – which leads to endless hours spent searching for it – but most of the time we have too-much information bombarding our senses and the most useful of it is lost among the noise.

When you consider the number of places we collect and store information, it is easy to see why it can become overwhelming. Take a look at this image as an example

This is what happens in an internet minute
2017 Internet Minute (source: pic.twitter.com/WHfKNjiYHZ)
Each of these entities, as well as the many others you may have, can be seen as a source for potential opportunities,  new information, a distraction, or just noise that you ignore because there is too much going on. The best way to deal with information overload is to ensure you keep all of these as “read” or “empty”, by doing the following:

Manage all communications

  • Information that needs a response or action must be moved to somewhere that it can be prioritised and actioned
    • A to-do list using Outlook, OneNote, or your favourite app
    • An action folder that you process and clear regularly
    • Onto your calendar to schedule a time to respond and take action
  • Information that will be useful in future needs be moved to a location where it can be stored, searched, and used:
    • Store in a decent filing system (see below)
    • Copy the information into a OneNote notebook to enable quicker searching and annotation
  • Anything else is noise, distraction, and overload – deal with it before it consumes your time:
    • Unsubscribe from the mailing lists
    • Stop following the feed
    • Remove the notifications and popups
    • Remove the information altogether if it is not part of your main work or interests

Prevent distractions

Too many small distractions add up to a large loss of time and productivity. So, if you are a heavy user of Microsoft Outlook, remove those annoying pop-ups:

Outlook notifications
Remove distractions by turning off alerts
If you do most of your work on your phone, adjust the notifications and alerts to ensure only the most important information appears as a popup notification or makes a sound.

A Decent Filing System:

When you have a lot of information to deal with, on a regular basis, you need to find a way to handle that information efficiently. However the information is received, you need to transfer it to a system that is easier to use:

  • Email should stay in your email system (such as Microsoft Outlook)
  • Any attachments, and other documents you gather, should be saved to a filing system (such as OneDrive or DropBox)
  • Any other information, such as websites, images, or your own written/types notes, should be stored somewhere that is easy to find and use: my recommendation is Microsoft OneNote – this is one of the most powerful tools of the Office suite and still many people don’t know how to use it yet!

Once you have your information consolidated into a few places, the simplest rule is to then break it down into common categories that can be used across the repository systems:

Process and store information efficiently

  1. Start by date: every year we gain more and more information, but it is usually only relevant for a short period of time, and if we are going to reference it in future then we are likely to use a date system. Create a main folder with the current year “2017” (this allows for easy archive ever year). Any old data you want to clean up, create another folder called “Before 2017” and dump it all in there (especially good for your current email system if it is a mess)
  2. Within 2017, create sub-folders: the top level folders I use are “Personal” and “Professional”, but you may use something else that defines the core difference between the data you collect.
  3. Now create folders that separate the information by the next logical division such as:
  • 2017
    •  Personal:
      • Blog
      • Hobbies
      • Household
        • Financials
        • Utilities
    • Professional:
      • Career
      • Projects
        • Project 1
        • Project 2
      • Training & Certification
      • Travel & Expenses

You can still use search to find content you need, but a simple system like this will ensure you can quickly identify the type of information you are handling, and the most appropriate location for it (also, not everything contains the right keywords required for search). Challenge yourself when you get to a point where you can’t decide which folder a document should go into – or if you are creating too many folders and sub folders because your filing system didn’t make sense and quickly got out of control.

Time is money, spend it wisely

Just like money, sometimes we spend our time doing what we want to do because we enjoy it, sometime we waste it on almost nothing useful, and the rest of the time we do what have to do to earn a living, make a product, or otherwise invest to gain reward.  The money analogy is a good one, except for one thing: No one can buy more time – we all get 24 hours in a day, it’s how we invest it that makes the difference.

So, you have 24 hours ahead of you – what are you going to do with it?

Plan for having the best day possible: what you have to do to be successful, how long does that require, and is there a deadline for completion? Once you set aside time for the main priorities of the day, everything else is spare time that you should enjoy and make the most of – this is the key to prevent over working, whilst being as productive as possible. By enjoying our spare time when we have it, we can focus on our work when we do it – too much time thinking about one prevents us enjoying or achieving the other.

Sometimes our plans are impacted forces outside of our control: by planning your priorities and carving out time for specific activities, when something new arrives on your to-do list (urgent or not), you can choose what can be moved, and what can not. Are the commitments you made to family and friends easier to move than work priorities, or can that work item wait a bit longer to allow you time to have a life?

The best way to ensure you are going to have a successful day is to plan it out on a digital calendar. My favorite tool has always been Microsoft Outlook, but you can use any app or product you like as long as you can get the same results. Start by creating a few big-ticket items like the main priorities you have for the day – lets say it’s writing a blog post, or a 2,000 word essay or report. Don’t give yourself all day, otherwise it will take you longer than that to complete. Instead, give yourself 2 hours – choose the right time and location for which to achieve this and then use that time to get most of the work done.

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