Information overload is a problem that predates smartphones and the Internet by a long shot. Back in the early 1960s, James G. Miller, then director of the Mental Health Research Institute at the University of Michigan, put together 7 strategies for dealing with overload. Here they are, updated for today:
1. Omit — You can’t read everything on your plate, so ignore some of it. This might be a bit dangerous because the omitted information might be important; like that email offering you a big promotion, or a final notice from the IRS, but hey, it works. And remember, if it’s important enough, it might just come around again. Caveat emptor.
2. Error –respond to information without giving it due consideration. Doesn’t sound very smart, does it, but who hasn’t responded to an email, report, or telephone call without thinking through the consequences? Consolation: if you blow the big deal, at least you saved some time, right?
3. Queue — put information aside until there is time to catch up. For example, go over email early in the morning, then put aside the ones that require consideration for later in the day. Another example, put aside reports and read them at night, when you are less distracted.
4. Filter — prioritize information… look at what’s important first. Automated tools can help here because they are good at analyzing text, making it easy to apply prioritization schemes. Some good examples of such technologies include recommendation engines, search tools, email rules… even Tivo for picking TV shows.
5. Use parallel channels — split up the task of processing information. At work, assign one person on your team responsibility for tracking new policies, and another responsibility for tracking market news. At home, make your husband slog through the monthly bills, so you can plan the family vacation.
6. Approximate –process information with limited precision; for example, by skimming emails. Like some of Miller’s other techniques, you can process more information when you approximate, but you risk making critical mistakes. Not always a great idea. Cautionary note: probably NOT a good idea to skim your mortgage or employment agreements.
7. Escape from the task — make processing information someone else’s problem. While this may sound irresponsible, admitting you can’t ‘do it all’ and giving the assignment to someone else may be the best strategy of all. Added bonus: when they screw up, you can blame them as well, and besides, what’s wrong with being irresponsible?
Final note — if you didn’t catch all the strategies in this article the first time around, you can always go back and skim it… or maybe assign someone to read it for you.