Information overload – a great place to hide – but a poor place to work!

Info-overload-image-newOf course some people do get a lot of email and need to read a lot of blogs, but it’s also a great place to hide away from doing what you really need to be doing.  I have noticed the following types of avoidance behaviour (the example below are not always avoidance behaviour of course):

  • Taking lots of notes (hiding away from the purpose of the meeting)
  • Making very long lists of “things to do” and fine tuning the list and the priorities of the tasks on the list (hiding away from doing the tasks on the list)
  • Reading hundreds of blog posts (making yourself feel very busy)
  • Languishing in hundreds of emails (when  you should be asking yourself – what are you doing wrong, not delegating, not journalling, not managing expectations, not creating process etc)
  • Making lots of blog posts (when you should be working)

So how do I score on this list:

  • Note taking, pretty good, I have always believed it is better to focus on the meeting rather than my notes and been lucky enough to have a memory that’s good enough to remember stuff that’s important.  Of course it doesn’t always work and I have tried several times to take notes, but its not for me.
  • Making long lists, fairly good,  I find I do pretty well without lists but I tend to find that I do not live a very balanced life.  I am using Life Balance to try and improve that and it’s been working pretty well.  It sort of gives you permission to forget stuff that is not that important!
  • Reading blogs,  not very well, they certainly consume a lot of my time.  I know they add value but I need to take some steps to create groups of the key blogs and just Mark All Read the rest when I don’t have time.
  • Emails, pretty good, I work hard to reduce the number of emails I get and always ask myself is there a better way.  Getting blogging software at work would be a big help.  However I do still find myself looking for new emails to divert myself with when I am getting fed up!
  • Blog posts, pretty good, I don’t post anything unless I have something to say (I never just link to others).  I use my blog to capture issues and events and commentary that is important to my understanding of the IT world.  I would love to be able to keep a work journal in the way I have described, unfortunately though I am not able to keep it in public and it takes time to change big companies :-(.

CNN has a short but worrying article on the perils of email addiction:

The constant interruptions reduce productivity and leave people feeling tired and lethargic, according to a survey carried out by TNS Research and commissioned by Hewlett Packard.

The survey of 1,100 Britons showed:

  • Almost two out three people check their electronic messages out of office hours and when on holiday

  • Half of all workers respond to an e-mail within 60 minutes of receiving one

  • One in five will break off from a business or social engagement to respond to a message.

  • Nine out of 10 people thought colleagues who answered messages during face-to-face meetings were rude, while three out of 10 believed it was not only acceptable, but a sign of diligence and efficiency.

    But the mental impact of trying to balance a steady inflow of messages with getting on with normal work took its toll, the UK’s Press Association reported.

    In 80 clinical trials, Dr. Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist at King’s College London University, monitored the IQ of workers throughout the day.

    He found the IQ of those who tried to juggle messages and work fell by 10 points — the equivalent to missing a whole night’s sleep and more than double the 4-point fall seen after smoking marijuana.

  • There are some great books written on this subject, this post by Marc talks to some of them and gives some good advice on email and task management:

      1. Processing techniques: There are a growing number of texts and seminars that will teach you techniques for efficiently processing what comes into your Inbox. I’m a big fan of David Allen and Sally McGhee in this regard (they were early collaborators on what ultimately became Getting Things Done and Take Back Your Life). The key element in their approaches, relative to this discussion, is the idea that you separate the time you spend processing email from the time you spend acting on what’s actionable in the messages. I’d suggest that Fred look into the workflow ideas they offer and use the ones that work best. But processing technique alone will not solve the inundation issue by itself.
      2. Software: Throwing software at the Inbox problem can also help. I’ve written about dozens of tools that can help by automating aspects of the processing, filing, and retrieval pieces of the puzzle. Scoble is having some success with ClearContext. Other email victims I know swear by NEO Pro. Getting Things Done fans get good results using the NetCentrics GTD add-in. ActiveWords can assist with creating auto-response text that can generate a stock reply with a single keystroke, as can Bells & Whistles and You Perform. Anagram can intelligently extract critical information from incoming email with a keystroke. Desktop search tools can assist with retrieval. One or more of these tools can make a big difference but, just like processing technique, software tools usually will not solve the problem by themselves.
      3. Attitude Adjustment: This is the hardest of the three to tackle because you’re not in complete control over your own destiny here and it’s hard to deal with feelings of obligation and guilt. People like Fred and Robert feel obliged to reply to everyone who writes to them. It’s a commendable personality trait but, in Scoble’s vernacular, it doesn’t scale. When you’re corresponding with a handful of people, you can be a faithful and responsive part of each conversation. Scale up to dozens of people (typical of most knowledge workers today) and you can still be very effective. Ratchet the bar up to hundreds of people (typical of many people I know including some popular bloggers) and things start to break down. When you get to more than a few hundred, you have to change the rules of engagement. There simply isn’t enough time in the day to reply in real-time and personally to that many people. So make it clear that you appreciate hearing from everyone but that the volume of mail you receive simply does not provide time for a hand-crafted and immediate response. Use processing techniques and software tools to assist with separating the most important messages from everything else and getting what’s actionable out of these critical messages.

    Steve Richards

    I'm retired from work as a business and IT strategist. now I'm travelling, hiking, cycling, swimming, reading, gardening, learning, writing this blog and generally enjoying good times with friends and family

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