How to Deal With Information Overload
Wonderfully cheesy Claymation reindeer. Fresh-baked cookies with merry icing decorations. Family get-togethers and snuggling by the fire and seeing the look on your loved ones’ faces when they open the gifts you’ve been dying to give them.
There are plenty of things to look forward to about the upcoming holiday weekend. But if you’re anything like me (and millions of other people), one of the things you’re most looking forward to about the holidays is the mandatory “unplugging.”
Sure, I could still grab my purse from my in-laws’ coat closest and sneak a peek at e-mail on my phone under guise of sneaking off to the bathroom. But I don’t want to. Because as much as I love being constantly connected with everything and everyone in this big, beautiful world, sometimes enough is enough. We’re frazzled and overwrought and inundated 24/7. A weekend of feeling festively obligated to put away the gadgets is perhaps the best gift we could get this season.
But what do you when the 26th rolls around and it’s back to the information vortex? So you can fully enjoy your holiday off without worrying about the impending return to chaos, here are some strategies to keep in mind for dealing with the dreaded Information Overload.
Set specific time windows. Check your e-mail in the morning, at lunch time, and in the evenings—and vehemently ignore it in between. Visit Twitter and Facebook a couple times a day, for a set amount of time. Don’t check your work e-mail at home (or at the movies, or at a family dinner). Set yourself guidelines, and make yourself stick to them. It’ll feel harsh and strange at first, but you’ll thank yourself shortly as you begin to realize how much calmer and more enjoyable your world has become.
Stand up for your time and attention. Many of us have the attention span of a gnat because we’re so accustomed to constant interruptions. We’ve adapted to focusing on things in short, intense bursts and then moving on. Force yourself to slow down, stop multitasking, and give your full attention to whatever is at hand. If your phone vibrates, too bad. If you feel yourself being drawn by the siren call of Twitter, resist. The world isn’t going to get any slower or less complicated. So it’s up to you to control how you devote your time and attention.
Be a selective, conscious consumer. You only have so many hours in a day, and you can only concentrate on so many things at once. So pick and choose what really matters to you. I vigorously ignore all news stories that deal with religion or politics. Why? Because I get absolutely nothing out of them except extremely pissed off. It’s a lot of yelling, a lot of judgment, and there’s always a new breaking story around the corner waiting to make today’s news irrelevant. Anything truly noteworthy, I wind up hearing about anyway through friends, coworkers, or Twitter. I’m o.k. not being on top of everything. I’m happier that way.
Help fight the problem by not contributing to it. Respect other people’s time just like you wish they’d respect yours. Don’t “reply all” to messages or “cc” people you don’t need to. Don’t call someone with a non-urgent matter you could just e-mail so they can address it in their own time. On the other hand, if you have a complicated issue that would take 27 e-mails to resolve, just pick up the phone and get it hashed out in 10 minutes.
And now to address some particular information time-sucks:
Turn off the instant notifications. I tried this about a year ago with my work e-mail, and I cannot express how much it’s boosted my productivity, concentration—and sanity. You do NOT need to know when every single message comes into your inbox. If it’s super important, the sender should be contacting you in a more immediate way (by phone, by walking into your office, etc.). If your coworkers are used to e-mailing you urgent projects, let them know you’re changing your habits and will only be checking messages during certain periods of the day (you can upload an auto-respond message for a while to remind them). Then commit yourself to only checking during those periods. Your messages will still be there when you get around to them, I promise.
Unsubscribe from all those newsletters/RSS feeds. I’m horrible about this. I enter a contest or sign up for a freebie, and suddenly I’m getting daily notifications of promos and news from companies that sell Norwegian vacation packages and gourmet dog treats. I also tend to subscribe to every single blog I find one interesting post on—and even if subsequent posts don’t really speak to me, I feel like I should hold out a little longer just in case the content somehow radically changes.
A good rule of thumb is that if you find yourself deleting more than half of the messages that come from a subscription, you shouldn’t be subscribed. Will you maybe miss a post or two every few months that you might have enjoyed? Yeah, you might. But it’s not worth wasting your time deleting half the messages in your inbox without even reading them.
Practice as close to Inbox Zero as you can. Flagging something for follow up or moving it into a To Do folder only gets you a mountain of “action items” you know you will probably never take action on. Just like the “touch it once” system for handling physical mail, force yourself to deal with every message you open. Respond to it, delete it, and only place it on hold if it’s something you really do need to wait on (like a request for info you don’t have at the moment). The less pending items you have to deal with, the easier it will be to keep track of them and the less likely you’ll be to pitch the whole list out of sheer overwhelm.
Cell Phone Overload
Let it ring. I can’t help it. I feel guilty every time I let my phone ring, especially if I see who’s calling and decide for whatever reason I’ll get back to them later. It feels like the equivalent of having a friend show up on your doorstep and then closing the door in their face. But you know what? If someone shows up unannounced on your doorstep when you’re in the middle of something important, they’ll probably understand if you can’t talk to them that second. You do not have to be readily available for everyone all the time.
This also applies to e-mail, text messages, etc., but somehow a ringing phone has a sense of urgency about it that calls more compellingly to us (or at least me). Know where that sense of urgency comes from? From Back in the Day when you had to answer the phone because there was no voice mail, texting, or a gajillion other ways for people to get in contact with you. But there are now. We’re so reachable it’s ridiculous. A ringing phone is just like an incoming e-mail: unless it’s something you’re expecting, you have no obligation to jump to answer the second it comes in.
Stop asking Siri everything that pops into your head. Or Googling every random bit of trivia that comes up in conversation. Or checking in on Four Square every time you arrive anywhere (and then posting a pic of what you’re eating there on Facebook). Having the great, vast world of information at our literal fingertips is an amazing thing. But it also prevents us from living in the real world right in front of us. Don’t become a member of this family. Put away the gadget and trying just being for a while. It’s really not so bad.
Turn the damn thing off. I never leave my phone on at night. There has to be a point at which you say “enough.” If you really do need to be accessible 24/7 (like you’re a parent who wants to know if your kid needs a ride home from a party at 2 a.m.), then turn off all other notifications (e-mail, text message, etc.) so that at least it’s not as intrusive. Or if you have a land line, make that the “emergency” contact number and give the cell a rest at night. Feel free to let it nap during the day, too. Cell phones were meant to be a convenience, not a life hijacker.
Social Media Overload
Only be “friends” with your actual friends. Blasphemy! I know, it can be kind of interesting to find out what that girl you sat next to in high school thought of the latest episode of Glee. But most of our friend feeds are cluttered with people whose actual lives we couldn’t care less about. (Or, worse yet, you friend someone and then unsubscribe from their status updates, which defeats the entire purpose. Other people have gone this far, right? No? No, me neither…)
Go through your “friends” list and ruthless unfriend anyone you wouldn’t happily have a 10-minutes conversation with in real life. This isn’t middle school. You don’t need to get everyone in class to sign your yearbook just to prove you’re popular.
Dip your toes in the Twitter stream, don’t drown in it. I hate to shatter anyone’s dreams or aspirations, but you will never be able to keep up with every single tidbit your Tweeps are posting. You can keep things a little more manageable by creating lists for the people you really want to follow closely, but even then, stop by, take a peek, and move on.
Don’t be a social media whore. Yes, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Digg, LinkedIn, Google+, and a million other social networks are all there. That doesn’t mean you have to use every single one of them. Pick one or two networks and stick with them. (And sorry for calling you a whore. Thesaurus.com couldn’t give me another word that expressed the idea with the same oomph.)
Watch on your own time. I sometimes wonder if anyone actually watches live TV anymore, but if you do, you shouldn’t. DVRs, TiVo, Hulu, and shows on DVD all allow you to watch the shows you want on your terms. No more wasted time (or buy-buy-buy messaging) from commercials. No more missing a show when you have a busy week. Live your live, and fit your shows in when you feel like it.
Don’t be a DVR hoarder. That said, just because you can record any show you might ever want to watch doesn’t mean you should. Choose a handful of shows you would really miss if they were gone, and don’t record more in a day than you’d ever be able to catch up on in a month. The whole point of recording is to free up more time for yourself, not make you a slave to a backlog of shows you don’t really care that much about.
What About You?
How do you cope with Information Overload? What things do you find the most overwhelming?
And, to all my dear, lovely readers: Happy holidays (happy Holiday if you’re Pastafarian), merry Christmas, happy Kwanzaa, and festive Festivus to you all! Now go out and enjoy your life!