Tidy Up That Data Overload

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Information OverloadIn my last post I talked about how clutter can drag us down and distract us from our most important priorities. We can gain so much when we can beat back that tumultuous tide of too much disorganized stuff!

And there’s a particularly burdensome type of clutter in today’s workplace: the vast, unending flow of information that may seem urgent but can leave us feeling exhausted and more confused than ever.

That was a problem for “Sophie,” a busy manager working long hours in a competitive environment. She had just received a modest promotion, which meant that her small team of analysts would grow from three direct reports up to five. She’d wanted this broader responsibility, but now she wasn’t feeling happy about her expanded role. Sophie told me that she was already operating at her full capacity. So how could she possibly handle the additional work that would come along with her bigger job?

When, in the course of coaching, we looked at how Sophie was spending her workdays, it seemed that she was constantly struggling to sort through more information than she could possibly absorb. She wanted to understand each of her analyst’s projects, so she tried to stay current with what they were doing and all the material they were processing. She would listen carefully during her frequent meetings, just taking small breaks to check her phone messages. And throughout each day, no matter what she was working on, she’d turn repeatedly from her current projects in an attempt to carefully read and promptly deal with countless emails.

Sophie was suffering from information overload. She was so overwhelmed by all the details she was trying to digest that she had lost the ability to set reasonable priorities and concentrate on her most important goals. When she looked at her work patterns, she realized that it was time to make more realistic choices about how much she could do. She needed to let some things go, and to better manage the deluge of information that faced her every day.

Sophie was not alone. According to leading cognitive psychologist Daniel J. Levitin, in today’s world we’re often confronted by more information than our brains can handle. And the more cognitive load we struggle with, the more likely it is that we’ll make errors, lose our keys and have trouble with even small decisions.

Levitin tackles the problem of too much data in his wide-ranging book, “The Organized Mind – Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.” He says that our old habits may cause us to be bogged down in mental clutter, so sometimes some areas need must be cleaned up and reorganized.

Here are some of Levin’s suggestions for managing the hyper flow of data:

  • Stop trying to multitask. Our brains evolved to do one thing at a time, Levitin says, and the idea that we can do several things at once is just a “diabolical illusion.” When we try to keep up with email while we’re working on a key project, there’s a cost. Our attempt to constantly change gears squanders our most valuable cognitive resource: attention. And at the same time our over-stimulated brain increases the production of stress hormones like cortisol. To do your best work, set aside blocks of time to concentrate on your top priorities, one at a time.
  • Know what’s good enough. Every day we’re confronted by countless small decisions, and handling them can wear us out. But for most questions, like what to do for lunch, we don’t need to make the best We just need to decide and move on. Levitin suggests that you stop wasting time choosing what to do about things that aren’t your top priority. Instead, become comfortable with the strategy of “satisficing,” which means that you quickly select a good enough option, even if it may not be the best possible one.
  • Get stuff out of your head. Like many productivity experts, Levitin argues that a fundamental principle of organizing is to shift the burden of managing information from our brains, out to the external world. Often this simply means that if you need to remember something you should write it down. One benefit is that writing things conserves the mental energy you might waste in worrying about forgetting them. And for many of us, handwritten notes seem to work best. Levitin says that he was surprised while researching to see how many people at the top of their professions always carry around a notepad or index cards for taking physical notes, instead of using electronic devices.
  • Take breaks. Research suggests that people who take a 15-minute break every couple of hours are much more efficient, in the long run, than their colleagues who never leave their desks. By briefly walking, or listening to music, or even napping, you can increase your productivity and creativity.
  • Delegate.  Most employees enjoy their work more and perform better if they have at least some autonomy. This is good news for managers, like Sophie, who struggle with information overload, because it underscores the value of pushing down more authority and empowering direct reports to exercise more judgment.

If the daily barrage of data leaves you more besieged than enlightened, it may be time for a cleanup. Recognize that some of those bytes are just clutter, and try new ways to manage all that information.

For more tips for a flourishing career, check out my new book, Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like a CEO.

Beverly Jones, an alum of Ohio University, is a former lawyer and Fortune 500 executive, an executive and transitions coach, and a leadership consultant with a broad and varied practice. Her column appears at Clearways Consulting LLC. Republshed with permission. For archives and additional content, visit the Clearways Consulting website.