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Information overload is nothing new, but it is getting far worse. Here are 7 time-proven strategies to keeping your head above the information tide.
A prominent researcher writes “information overload is a problem of the times.” What’s causing that overload?
“At present in the world there are about 55,000 scientific journals publishing about 1,200,000 articles a year. Also about 60,000 books and 100,000 other research reports are issued annually . The sheer physical bulk of scientific and technical publications appearing in the United States has doubled approximately every 20 years since 1800.”
.” It’s a challenge we can’t ignore, since information has become such a central part of our personal and professional lives. And because overload leads to performance degradation, stress, and depression, it is imperative we find effective ways to cope.
What can we do to deal with the information tide? Miller in his 1962 study provides some extremely effective strategies for dealing with overload; strategies that in some cases work just as well today as they did in the 1960s. Here are Miller’s seven strategies for dealing with information overload, updated for the times:
1. Omission – The concept is simple: you can’t consume everything, so just ignore some. This is a bit dangerous since some of the omitted information might be the most critical. Imagine that the email you ignored was the one where your most important client alerts you to a new opportunity.
2. Error – Respond to information without giving due consideration. While a seemingly poor strategy, this is more common than you might think; I mean, who hasn’t reacted to an email, report, or telephone call without thinking through all the consequences because of time constraints or lack of attention?
3. Queuing – Putting information aside until there is time catch up later. An example is processing email early in the morning, before the business day begins, or reading important reports late at night.
4. Filtering – This is similar to omission except filtering employs a priority scheme for processing some information while ignoring others. Automated tools are particularly well suited to help filter information. Recommendation engines, search tools, email Inbox rule engines and Tivo are all good examples of tools that can help filter and prioritize information.
5. Employing multiple/parallel channels – Doling out information processing tasks; for example, assigning the tracking of Twitter feeds to one person and blog coverage to another person on your team.
6. Approximation – Processing information with limited precision. Skimming is an example of approximation. Like omission and error, you can process more information by approximating, but you run the risk of making critical mistakes
7. Escaping from the task – Making this someone else’s problem. While it sounds irresponsible, admitting you can’t ‘do it all’ and giving an assignment to someone else is sometimes the best strategy of all.
Over the years, self-help and management guidebooks have dedicated significant attention to queuing, employing multiple channels and approximation as ways of improving information processing. More recently, filtering has received more attention. There are now a host of digital filtering technologies to make our lives easier; some examples include search tools, RSS alerts, email filters, social media analysis tools, and web analytics. Another exciting new area for dealing with information overload are tools that prioritize information through context analysis. This is a fascinating area that is in its infancy. I will come back to that in a future post.
A final note: If you didn’t get the gist of this post, you can always skim it again or come back to it later…just don’t assign it to someone else to read.
Author David Lavenda is a high-tech product strategy and marketing executive. He also does academic research on information overload in organizations and is an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology. He tweets from @dlavenda.
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