Feeling frazzled and overwhelmed with the amount of material coming across your desk each day? Having difficulty keeping up with journals, transmittals, e-newsletters, reports, documents, podcasts, Tweets, pins, and business-management bestsellers?
If so, you may be suffering from "information overload," a growing problem that impacts productivity and performance at work. Information overload is emotionally unhealthy and can result in poor concentration, poor decision making, and an inability to get work done. If left unchecked, information overload can weaken the immune system and cause depression and burnout.
Don't mentally exhaust yourself trying to absorb the voluminous and vast amount of information you're exposed to each day — it's not humanly possible. Use these six strategies to create a healthier and more productive work environment:
1. Reduce the flow. In a world where information bombards us by the boatload, time-management techniques no longer work. The only effective way to address overload is to reduce the amount of information you receive in the first place. Try a two-week media fast — no newspapers, news sites, TV, radio, or magazines. Unsubscribe from the e-newsletters you're not reading anyway. Stop the mindless, midday Web surfing and Facebooking. Whittle your professional journals to three, max. All of these things will make you feel lighter and less exhausted. Promise.
2. Ignore anything that isn't immediately useful. Managers are flooded with documents, e-mails, snail mail, staff questions, physician orders, meeting requests, invitations, data, and more — every day. Give yourself permission to ignore anything that doesn't have a deadline or an immediate (within a week or two) application to your job or work projects. If you're torn about whether to toss or keep something, store it in the cloud using a free app such as Evernote. You can capture, organize, and store everything in Evernote — from to-do lists and websites to photos, notes, and e-mails — and retrieve them later, from any device.
3. Get a grip on e-mail. What's the No. 1 thing super-successful people don't do? According to Julie Morgenstern's best-selling book by the same name, they don't check e-mail first thing in the morning. And neither should you. If you start the flow of e-mail oxygen the moment you get out of bed, you'll be hard pressed to shut it off and you'll feel as if you're running defense all day long. Wait to check e-mail until you arrive in the office.
In addition, instruct your team not to balloon your inbox with silly e-mail responses such as "Thanks!" or "OK." Don't respond to e-mail you're copied on (remember: "cc" is an FYI, not an action step). And decrease the number of times you check e-mail to three times a day. Despite what that nagging inner voice is saying, you don't need to read and respond to e-mail in real time. There are better ways to feel needed.
4. Clean the clutter. Papers, piles, and disorganization can make us feel overwhelmed and out of control, resulting in decision-making paralysis and an inability to complete tasks. Take an hour to organize and clean your workspace. And schedule a mandatory, monthly "D-Day" (de-clutter day) for the entire practice so everyone can consistently purge unneeded information, regroup, and focus on priorities.
5. Release the relentless "to-do list" from your head. Put everything that's rolling around up there down on paper, or in a Word or text document. Often, it's more stressful to think about all the things you need to read, confront, or follow up on than to actually do them, which leads to anxiety and procrastination. Once you can visualize everything on paper, you can begin to organize, prioritize, and get to work.
6. Let it sit. Sometimes the best decision is to do nothing. Unless it's a critical request or piece of data, it can wait. This is the Zen practice of "not doing." And don't confuse it with laziness. On the contrary, it is often in the space of "not doing" that we are doing the most. When you give yourself the space to wait, and the time to let the information percolate, you will reduce hasty responses and half-baked ideas. In fact, "not doing" is often where your best management decisions are made.
Cheryl Toth is a senior consultant and writer with KarenZupko & Associates, Inc. She can be reached via [email protected].