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Coping with information overload

There are many benefits of modern technology in the business world, particularly in terms of distributing, receiving and accessing information.

But with all the benefits of receiving vast amounts of information around the clock via many different forms of media, while desk-bound as well as while on the move, at home and even on holiday, there are disadvantages too.

Often termed “information overload”, it is an affliction suffered by many business leaders – and it is addictive! Do you recognise the stresses and pressures of information overload which come hand-in-hand with the benefits of modern technology?

If so and you want to make a change, the good news is that there’s plenty that can be done about it. But, you do need to look at yourself first and you are likely to need to break some old habits.

Symptoms of the condition

The responsibilities and expectations of senior executives are often massive. They have to know and be in control of what is going on in their own area and across the organisation; they have to understand their customers’ needs and challenges; they have to understand what is going on in their markets, any political, environmental, social and technological developments; on and on the list goes!

Cultural elements can make the problem worse.

For example, a ‘cc’-culture can increase the information overload:

  1. How much do colleagues and staff copy you in on their emails?

  2. Do you really need to know or act upon all of these?

  3. To what extent it is just to “cover their backs”?

  4. Do you encourage it?

Of course CEOs and other top executives need to have access to all facets of the company, bearing these in mind when they make their judgements. But they also need uninterrupted time to make these choices, to digest information from their choice of different sources without having their concentration broken by a flurry of unwanted and unrelated information.

It’s hard to switch off. Smartphones and social media are a vital part of our business lives but they’re also addictive – the involvement and immediacy they provide us with can be hard to let go of. But leaders need to ask themselves whether they are making the best use of their own time.

Coaching the information addiction

We meet the ‘information overload’ theme regularly in our work with business leaders. The problems and the solutions are often related to both the culture of the organisation and the individual leader’s personal effectiveness.

Coaching offers a very effective way to help leaders reflect on their own style and approach to managing the information, as well as how they can change the organisational culture for the benefit of the their staff and colleagues.

So what to do?

Here are some self-coaching questions you can ask yourself to review and address your own situation:

  1. What is my goal?

  2. What outcome am I seeking from reviewing how I manage my incoming information?

  3. What is the reality of the situation?

  4. How is the information I receive affecting the work I should be doing?

  5. How many of the emails and other information I receive do I really need to see?

  6. How come people send these to me, when I don’t really need to see them?

  7. What am I doing to encourage or discourage people to send me information (whether that is explicit in my instructions or implicit in my behaviours)?

  8. What options do I have to take more control of the information?

  9. How can I stop the information I don’t need to see (without negative consequences)?

  10. What information would be more effectively communicated by other means (e.g. meetings instead of emails)?

  11. What opportunities is there for improving the quality of the information I receive (e.g. shorter, more to the point etc)?

  12. How can I improve the way I manage my own time in respect to reading and responding to incoming information?

  13. How can I protect the time I need for concentrated uninterrupted thinking?

  14. Who can help me with this?

Don’t forget also that, as a leader, you set the culture which the rest of your company will adhere to. If you can always be reached, if you respond to emails during the weekend, if you copy many people in on your emails and so on – this is the behaviour your team will emulate. If that’s what you want and it’s important for the company, then that’s absolutely fine. If however you think that time is being wasted and your performance or the business’ performance are suffering, then you can do something about it!

There are many ‘tricks’ to manage and improve the quality, quantity and effectiveness of the information you receive. In my coaching work I regularly help leaders make dramatic improvements to their personal effectiveness – we often find half-a-day or more per week in time savings!!

And what not to do!

Please, please don’t think that working longer hours, clearing the inbox at home, reading reports over the weekend or even multi-tasking is the answer to coping with the information overload. These strategies are all about working harder, not smarter! They may offer temporary relief from your information overload condition, but they will make you ill for real in the long-term.

And this includes the multi-tasking approach. As a coping strategy it is hugely flawed, a subject I will address in one of my upcoming articles.

What is your experience with “information overload”? Please share any effective strategies that helped you improve your situation.

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