“Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.” –Gertrude Stein, American Writer
How do we ever manage to filter the barrage of information that comes at us each day from every direction—blinking computers, vibrating phones and conversations speaking over conversations? Becoming a master at identifying the stuff that’s important enough to require our attention versus allowing everything to get our equal attention is more important now than ever before. Now, not only is it a “must” that we do this well, but as managers, getting our employees to do the same is what becomes the defining mix of success and sanity.
Information overload is a term first used in the early 1960s to describe an excess of information – and we’ve come a long way since with the variety of information piled on via emerging tools, technologies, applications and social media today. Even back in the 60s, information overload was credited with a loss of ability to filter everything appropriately, process the right information the right way and make good decisions. More recent research shows that constant communication rarely helps, but instead just makes it more difficult to concentrate.
I’m probably the least “connected” of my friends and family – I still get along without a smart phone, I read the morning newspaper in paper form, and while I occasionally log-in to check email or do other online activities at home, I am not attached to a web-enabled device outside of work hours like most everyone else I know. That may be my small way of combating the overload of information I experience at work where I am challenged with picking out the items that need my attention and taking the appropriate action in the appropriate time frame. Keeping track of it all takes a high level of diligence and some sort of system.
Take a look at your work environment – including your staff’s immediate environment. Do your responsibilities require you to spend most of your time “on the floor” or behind a counter? If there are offices involved, are you a follower of the “open office” trend where companies are replacing personal space with unassigned desks or communal tables for workers? Any of these scenarios require you to actively figure out how to focus and get your job done without the risk of distractions. Consider this for your employees as well… are they set up for success in their own space to meet performance expectations around their job or role? Literally, put yourself in their place and change it to optimize their efforts to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.
Learn to distinguish between routine and non-routine tasks. Routine tasks, like our daily responsibilities or the things we do regularly, don’t require much of our active attention (they become an automatic, a habit). Anything that’s new, urgent or not part of our usual routine demands more focus. Your brain assigns focus to routine and non-routine items automatically. You can probably run a compliance checklist and answer an employee question all at the same time without sacrificing too much efficiency – however when you throw in a customer crisis demanding your immediate and full attention everything else gets thrown out the window. Save your energy for the tasks that need your focus, and let your passive attention deal with the routine items supported by some kind of reminder system, such as a task planner, to make sure nothing gets missed.
Rank your activities. Learn to ignore the low value tasks and focus on the high value items. A message from your boss is likely to be more important than the one from your sister-in-law who likes to send out pictures of cute kittens. An item that’s due today is of higher value today than it might have been yesterday, and certainly is of higher value today than something that’s not due until next week. It’s OK to ignore items or save them for a time you have set aside for low-value tasks.
“Never confuse motion with action,” Benjamin Franklin said (or something very similar) over 200 years ago. When you are ready to deal with something, take the steps to get it done and not just move it around. With all the recent focus on the anniversary, it’s a rather obvious cliche, but try to avoid “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” – those folks were doing something, but they weren’t accomplishing anything. Dealing with every item we are presented with is unrealistic and inefficient.
You can help your staff combat information overload by being mindful of these tips. Don’t be part of the problem. Model the right behaviors. Your team will be sure to follow. Then navigating the challenging waters of information overload will seem like a breeze.
By Nancy Lane, Human Resources Manager at Red Book Solutions