How to Deter Data Deluge

January 30, 2011

Isn’t it ironic that I’ve been meaning to blog about information overload since last Wednesday and that I haven’t been able to get to it because of, well, information overload?! The sheer amount of call-to-action emails I received last week alone would make any IT department head’s spin.

Prioritization is indeed an important skill. Even as things are swirling about us, we need to be able to say, “I will get to this on Monday.” Expectation management, prioritization’s close cousin, reminds us (and those around us) that there truly are limits to what we are capable of doing at any given moment.

According to Peter Drucker’s 1967 classic, The Effective Executive, “most of the tasks of the executive require, for minimum effectiveness, a fairly large quantum of time.” We all need time to process, think and consider our next action steps. Yet so often we are in reaction to our environment (phones ringing, emails pinging, Skype singing) that we barely have a moment to tend to the higher thinking required in our jobs.

I was recently advised by colleagues to become more strategic in my thinking. Looking at the Big Picture can save baby steps that lead us down the wrong path. I agree. And the greatest challenge is finding the time to be in proactive, not reactive, mode.

We have to train ourselves not to pick up the phone, to let it go to voicemail or to respond only to those immediate matters that are of utmost importance. We risk disappointing people who expect you to jump when they want you (Oddly, I have easily taught my children that their ‘now’ is not always mine. Defining the when of things is key). 

I pondered the ‘always on’ syndrome as I finished up some mindless administrative work that merely required concentration and an uninterrupted ninety minutes on Saturday. Yes, Saturday! I weighed my options. Was this urgent? (It was). Was it important? (It was). Would I suffer more by delaying the task until Monday? (Most definitely).

The McKinsey Quarterly ran a great article entitled “Recovering from Information Overload” that points to our collective split-screen dilemma of attention fragmentation and overlapping commitments. As things unfold in real-time and people expect you to follow their string of emails like the crawl on the bottom of a TV screen, we are literally information-saturated.

The article requires a free registration so in the event you need the lowdown on your info-saturation recuperation in thirty seconds or less, here it is:

  • Multitasking kills productivity. Pruning your email inbox may feel like you’re doing something, but interrupting yourself from one thing to the next slows you down.
  • It hampers creativity, makes you anxious and has addictive qualities. The next time you’re tempted to answer emails while on a Skype call, know the other people can hear you thumping on your keyboard while you pretend to listen.
  • Focus, filter, forget. To deal with your data deluge, unplug, delegate and engage in physical excursion. Some executives in the McKinsey article claimed some of their most brilliant ideas came in the midst of a headstand in their yoga class.

The bottom line? “Multitasking isn’t heroic; it’s counterproductive.”

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