Fighting Information Overload

Manage information, don’t let information manage you.

The Productivity Paradox suggests that an increase in technology does not necessarily translate to an increase in productivity.

Earlier this year, I conducted a rather savage personal experiment - I compared the effects of being in a state where I controlled information versus one in which information controlled me.

The Experiment:

For 30 days, I opened up some floodgates as follows:

  1. I enabled email push notifications and answered every email instantly, or within an hour of receiving it.
  2. I answered every unanticipated phone call/text message/direct message instantly, or within an hour of receiving it.
  3. I enabled push notifications for all of my social media and only read home feeds (as opposed to customized feeds).
  4. I started regularly watching and reading the news again - I haven’t done that since 2006.

The Results:

As predicted, by the end of the month-long information glut, I began malfunctioning. On the physical front, I quickly fell out of my gym routine and subsequently packed on 10 pounds of sedentary-lifestyle and comfort food-induced weight; the onslaught of blue light threw my sleeping patterns into disarray; I became locked in a cycle of caffeinating and crashing. On a mental front, needless to say, I grew high-strung and strangely anti-social.

The irony? With all the information at my fingertips and no competing priorities, my productivity levels somehow sank from 90% to 60%. Average time it took to complete projects plummeted, as more time was spent managing information input rather than doing actual work. And work seemed to beget more work. Conversely, stress (and time spent coping with stress) increased. All of my inboxes blurred into a single torrent of demands and work-life balance became a foreign concept. In sum, I couldn’t deal with information overload.

Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.(Parkinson’s Law)

Understand that every piece of information, no matter how small, places a demand on your time and energy. At the top of the GTD project funnel are what David Allen refers to as “life’s random inputs” (ideas, emails, notes, phone calls, etc). The more information you come into contact with, the more time and energy you naturally have to expend in order to process it. Tethered to devices and immersed in a digital layer the way we are, we find ourselves in a predicament — many of us don’t have personal systems in place to control the deluge of information competing for our mindshare, let alone don’t even think of information in these terms. Many of us have settled into habits of productivity bursts, while others are perpetually burnt out or worse, paralyzed.

But bouncing back from my experiment was easy. I centred on some practices & philosophies central to achieving a state of concurrence. Below are a handful of them.

Concurrent Philosophies

Some of these are harsh, but they work.

Fuck email.

Email isn’t real work, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to themselves. Email is nothing more than an inefficient system of reallocating priorities which more often than not devolves into what I call “responsibility ping-pong.” I spend no more than 30 minutes a day, distributed across normal working hours, checking and responding to e-mails. Instead, I…

Embrace project management tools.

My weapon of choice is Asana. Yours might be Basecamp, GitHub, Podio, or a combination of a few. What’s important is that you use a project management tool. You cannot achieve concurrence by relying on your email to “manage” projects. Asana is how I move projects towards completion. Not status update emails. Not check-ins. Not email threads. With Asana, I can quickly move information into actionable items, consolidate and organize assets, as well as gain much-needed project overviews. And that’s just the beginning.

Evernote is your second brain.

Your attention is a valuable, although finite, resource. Not everything deserves your attention, let alone your memory. Use Evernote as a repository for all the important and especially miscellaneous details about your life that you want to remember, and call upon later, but can’t necessarily allocate attention or memory towards at the moment. Passwords, itineraries, receipts, quotes, etc. — the possibilities are endless. Used in conjunction with a service like IFTTT, Evernote can become a productivity game-changer for you.

Rely on hand-picked experts.

Confession — I don’t watch season games or pay close attention to politics. When I want to know anything important about either, I ask any of my well-informed friends for their opinions, and synthesize them into my own. Talk to me pre-playoffs, and you’d think I had season tickets. Talk to me pre-elections, and you’d think I was studying political science. The point is, there’s no merit for knowing everything (unless you have ambitions of becoming a Jeopardy contestant). Think of all the amazing things you could be doing with your time instead of trying to stay informed for the sake of water-cooler conversations. Get into the habit of just-in-time learning, and keep a mental or written index of experts you can rely on as needed.

Dictate the pace of engagement.

I’ll be the first person to tell you that some of the best ideas are born from life’s random inputs. But your day shouldn’t be spent being interrupted by them, and then struggling to recover from them. There is serious time and energy expended by being derailed from the project at hand, and then trying to recalibrate yourself to resume work on it. Insist on days where there are no meetings. And if you want to take it up a notch, insist on days where there is no talking. Actively turn down seemingly pointless meetings. And if you must attend a meeting, insist on an agenda. Only entertain urgent or scheduled calls. It’s perfectly okay to ignore the noise.

“If you don’t pay appropriate attention to what has your attention, it will take more of your attention than it deserves.” — David Allen

Tips To Fight Information Overload

4 things you can start doing right away.

  1. Narrow your range of information sources. Create an index of where you currently receive your information inputs and then consolidate and scale back, based on which “inboxes” are crucial to helping move your projects towards completion. My current sources are in-person, email and phone. Everything else exists on the periphery of my GTD funnel.
  2. Create a smart newsfeed. Overcome the need to be informed of things that aren’t important to you. Use applications likes of Twitter, Quora, LinkedIn, State, and Medium to create a stream of information tailored for you. Use apps like Pocket and Evernote to automatically bookmark things you want to read later.
  3. Unsubscribe from everything. I can’t stress this enough. Unsubscribe your email from every goddamn newsletter and application (other than your project management suite). Anything that isn’t conducive to your projects moving forward, doesn’t deserve your attention. For a quick purge, use Unroll.me.
  4. Establish boundaries and stick to them. I already took the L for you with my personal experiment. Trust me, you need boundaries. As per Parkinson’s Law, constraints will actually improve your productivity. I don’t check my e-mail after 5pm. My voicemails are automatically converted into text messages. And I use RescueTime to measure how I’m spending my time and get recommendations on how to stay within my defined boundaries.

These few ideas should be sufficient to start with. Take them, make them your own and run with them. Far. Remember — manage information, don’t let information manage you. Hit me up at hamza@hamzakhan.ca and let me know how your journey is going.

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