Culturally, the concept of information overload has been around since the ‘70s when Alvin and Heidi Toffler first coined the term in their book Future Shock. At that time, car phones were about to become the latest communication craze, just like the computer before it.
Information, it seemed, was about to come from everywhere.
And now it does.
What does information overload feel like?
There are a million things that come your way every day. As a leader, you have people who report to you – all with different needs – and clients who want your attention. You deal with email and video calls, text messages and phone calls. Everywhere you turn, someone, in some way, “needs” your attention, and they’re hurling information at you, expecting you to sort it and deal with it.
In short order, you want to yell, “Stop!” But you can’t. You really do need to sort out the information coming your way, and in sorting and prioritizing you will find your deliverance.
As much as all this is happening to you, in a similar way, it’s also happening to your employees. They, too, are inundated with information.
And as their manager, it’s up to you the help see them through.
How can you recognize information overload in others?
Also described as “Information Fatigue Syndrome (IFS)” by Joseph Ruff at Harvard almost two decades ago, there are real information overload symptoms you can look out for in yourself and your people. They include:
- Poor concentration due to short-term memory overload
- Increased multitasking that results in diminished rather than increased productivity
- “Hurry sickness,” where a person believes they must constantly rush to save or keep pace with time
- Chronic state of irritability, near anger or even rage
- Being overly stimulated, resulting in brain fog
- Being compelled to always be plugged in (e.g., habitually check email, voicemail and the internet to stay in touch)
- Regular stress, including increased sickness, depression and burnout
How to deal with information overload
You must start with yourself before you can help anyone else. How you go about your day and your mindset may need to change if you’re feeling overwhelmed at work.
For instance, if you’re one of those folks who must answer a question as soon as it comes in, then you may struggle to manage your own needs.
Work toward becoming more cognizant of yourself, recognizing that being at everyone’s beck and call is going to stall you or at least slow you down. Then, communicate the expectation that your staff do the same.
Some things you can model for your benefit and that of your staff include:
- Creating the expectation that you will not always be available by using an email autoresponder during certain times of the day to tell people you will review and answer email at x-times during the day
- Attending to whatever you’re doing, and don’t allow interruptions (e.g., don’t excuse yourself from a call to answer another call or notification pop-up)
- Eliminating back-and-forth communications by taking a business communications course to communicate more precisely and concisely
- Using email filters and folders to sort simple updates into a separate file so that you can focus on more critical notifications
- Prioritizing tasks and blocking focus or project time in your calendar
- Determining which tasks can be given to others and then delegate accordingly
- Accepting “good enough” solutions – even if it means addressing your own perfectionism
- Eliminating disturbances by limiting disruptions (e.g., put cell phone on airplane mode when you need to concentrate)
- Changing perceptions of work by performing it in different locations or on different mediums (For example, print out something you need to read, and read it in the office lounge, your living room or a coffee shop.)
- Gathering only the amount of material you need for a project then moving along – while intentionally resisting the temptation to fall down a rabbit hole of information
How to keep information overload at bay
We spend most of our waking hours at work. That means, for office dwellers, our lives are spent online, digesting loads of data. Then when we come home, we consume more information on our big screen televisions, tablets, cell phones and home computers. It never stops.
What we need to do is not only find the time to unplug, but also schedule and then take the time to unplug. It’s a mindset change that will bring about a lifestyle change that will overflow into our working hours.
How? You can:
- Begin walking for 10-20 minutes after dinner, then schedule at least 10-15 minutes during your lunch hour.
- Actually take your two 15-minute breaks during the day and walk outside ‒ without anything to read, with your phone on airplane mode ‒ to give your brain a break.
- Walk with someone at work regularly and do not discuss work. Take the time to get to know each of your staff members this way or build relationships with colleagues in different units.
Notice a pattern? Getting away from work, stepping away from your office and interacting with people simply for the sake of interacting frees your mind from work – and gives it the break it needs.
You can also strive to:
- Keep things simple. Duplicate information is redundant; make sure people know how to communicate with you so they don’t inundate every medium you have at hand. It’ll make less work for them, and it will uncomplicate your communication routine. That means if you want urgent messages by text and updates on Teams or Slack, make sure everyone knows it. This way, you’ll only receive a message once rather than in four places.
- Set limits. Manage your time by setting limits. Be it Stephen Covey’s big rocks-little rocks routine, the agile process or a simple calendar app, pick a time management system and stick with it. When you plan your projects, break big tasks into smaller steps. Place each step into your calendar so you know when and what to expect to undertake. (This will also help you minimize overscheduling.)
- Prepare for tomorrow… and the week(s) ahead. Once you get through one day without information overload, you’ll want to do it again and again. Set yourself up for success by taking the last 20 minutes of your day to plan out the next day. Take an hour every Sunday evening to plan your week. Every so often, take an afternoon with your team to plan out a weekslong project. Prioritize tasks, and before you begin each task, collect your thoughts. This is a discipline you can practice and teach your team (make it an expectation) that will keep information overload under control.
Remember: You may not be able to incorporate every suggestion shared in this article into your routine, but you can try some of them to see what works. In doing so, you will set the example for your staff. Together, you all can help each other stem the tide of information that promises to crash into you each day.
Want to learn more about how to deal with information overload? Download our complimentary magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.