Coping with the deluge & addressing information overload requires enormous self-discipline!
Some fairly basic strategies are some combination of focusing, filtering, and forgetting.
The challenge for all of us is that executing such strategies in an always-on environment is hard to imagine. It requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline, and we can’t do it alone: in our teams and across the whole organization, we need to establish a set of norms that support a more productive way of working.
When planning out your calendar, take great caution not to be too light on deserving topics and to make the time to get to meaningful depth on the most important ones. Don’t shy away from the thorny, unpleasant, and high-stakes problems where you are most needed.
Pick a time & get disconnected! Create your “alone time.” Whether it’s between 6:30 and 8:00 AM, using your traveling time or scheduling any time you can find in the middle of the day, the key is to take an extreme approach by not answering or looking at any e-mails you don’t want to, don’t have a cell phone or BlackBerry nearby. Adopt the motto; “I don’t want to be connected; I want to be disconnected.”
Of course, turning everything off just means that your inbox will be overflowing when you reconnect, and there’s always the danger of becoming the blockade in the business cycle.
A good filtering strategy is critical. It starts with giving up the fiction that leaders need to be on top of everything. Rather, plain old delegation is as important with information as it always has been with tasks.
Some leaders now explicitly refuse to respond to any e-mail on which they are only cc’d, to filter out issues that others think require no action from them. You also may need to educate the people around you about what deserves to fill your limited time.
Winning respect for your in-box, though, won’t get you all the way there. Establishing an effective, day-to-day information-management support structure has become a critical success factor for senior executives. This structure may be elaborate, including a chief of staff for the CEO of a major organization, or as simple as a capable (maybe even virtual) assistant who “is fantastic at managing some of your e-mail traffic and weeding out the things that you don’t really need to see.
Giving our brains downtime to process new intellectual input is a critical element of learning and thinking creatively. Some of the best ideas literally come from standing in the shower for about 15 minutes! All of a sudden some significant light bulbs seem to turn on.
Getting outside helps—recent research has found that people learn significantly better after a walk in nature compared with a walk in the city. And emotional interaction with other people can also divert attention from conscious intellectual processing, a good step toward engaging the unconscious.
A responsibility to hit the ‘reset button’
All this was easier back when we couldn’t talk on the phone during the daily commute, we didn’t bring multiple connectivity-enabling devices with us on vacation, and planes didn’t have Wi-Fi. The strategies of focusing, filtering, and forgetting are also tougher to implement now because of the norms that have developed around 21st-century teamwork. Most leaders today would feel guilty if they didn’t respond to an e-mail within 24 hours. Few feel comfortable “hiding” from their teams during the day (or on the drive home or during the evening) in order to focus more intently on the most complex issues. And there is the personal satisfaction that comes from feeling needed.
But there is a business responsibility to reset these norms, given how markedly information overload decreases the quality of learning and decision making. Multitasking is not heroic; it’s counterproductive. As the technological capacity for the transmission and storage of information continues to expand and quicken, the cognitive pressures on us will only increase. We are at risk of moving toward an ever less thoughtful and creative professional reality unless we stop now to redesign our working norms.
First, we need to acknowledge and reevaluate the mind-sets that attach us to our current patterns of behavior. We have to admit, for example, that we do feel satisfied when we can respond quickly to requests and that doing so somewhat validates our desire to feel so necessary to the business that we rarely switch off.
Second, leaders need to become more ruthless than ever about stepping back from all but the areas that they alone must address. There’s some effort involved in choosing which areas to delegate; it takes skill in coaching others to handle tasks effectively and clarity of expectations on both sides. But with those things in place, a more mindful division of labor creates more time for leaders’ focused reflections on the most critical issues and also develops a stronger bench of talent.
Finally, to truly make this approach work, leaders have to redesign working norms together with their teams. One person, even a CEO, cannot do that alone—who wants to be the sole person on the senior team who leaves the smart phone behind when he or she goes on vacation?
The benefits of lightening the burden of information overload—in productivity, creativity, morale, and business results—will more than justify the effort. And the more we appreciate the benefits, the easier it will be to make new habits stick.