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Written by The Mezzanine Group
on June 02, 2011

We all know the feeling of just being totally overwhelmed and unable to effectively deal with the multitude of emails, texts, IMs, BBMs, regular messages, presentations, options, phone calls, questions and meetings that can come at us, sometimes all at the same time.

We might not realize it, but we are actually succumbing to the ‘paradox of choice’ where on one hand, we want as much information as possible, but on the other hand, too much information, through multiple channels and formats ends up being detrimental. While we know that it can’t be good for us, research shows that not only does information overload hamper productivity, it actually makes us feel less in control, anxious and increases stress.*

One of the simple ways to deal with information overload is through a simple strategy called multitasking. However, in the January 2011 edition of the McKinsey Quarterly, an article written by Derek Dean and Caroline Webb, it points out that multitasking is actually creating a worse outcome. According to Dean and Webb, when switching from one task to another, we become “startlingly less efficient”. “The root of the problem is that our brain is best designed to focus on one task at a time.” Beyond this, research also shows that multitasking hurts our creativity, and perhaps worst of all is addictive, potentially pushing us into a negative spiral.

Dealing with the overload:

Based on conversations with CEOs and executives trying to deal with information overload, Dean and Webb reported that through tremendous self-discipline as well as the establishment of more productive workplace norms, it is possible to deal with the overload.

Here are some suggestions adapted from the author’s article:

FOCUS: Make time (quiet or alone time) during your day where you can just focus on the task at hand. If there is really an emergency, make sure that a phone line is open but that emails will only be answered by the end of the day. If you can’t be trusted to leave your BlackBerry alone then think about leaving it behind.

FILTER: Make sure to only get deeply involved in issues that necessitate your involvement and/or are critical to the bottom line success of the organization. If it doesn’t meet these criteria delegating is extremely important.

FORGET: Doing something active or getting outside can help recharge our batteries and help us think more clearly and creatively.

While none of this is easy, understanding why we behave the way we do and changing our behavior accordingly is important if we are to be able to deal with the increasing amounts of information that is sent our way. As time goes on, strategies such as these will become increasingly more important in order to be more creative and effective.

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*David Bawden, The Dark Side of Information Overload, Journal of Information Science, 35 (2) 2009 pp 180-192).

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