Eight steps to thriving on information overload


Many of my keynote speeches focus on the future of business and where technology is going. One of the most common responses, and one I’ve heard many times after my speeches over the last few weeks, is to be staggered by the implications of where this is all going, followed by the question, “So how do I keep on top of everything that’s happening?” In a world in which the pace of developments and amount of information available in any given domain is soaring out of sight, it’s a very valid question.

I intend to spend more of my time answering this question in a practical fashion, as this has become an absolutely vital issue in a world of information run amok. For now, I thought I’d post an article I originally published 10 years ago in the October 1997 issue of Company Director magazine. Everything I wrote is still completely valid. However now we have access to many technological tools, which if used well, can assist us in coping with information overload. More on that later, along with some of the tools and approaches I find effective. The original article is here:

Information Overload – Problem or Opportunity?

“We have for the first time an economy based on a key resource [information] that is not only renewable, but self-generating. Running out of it is not a problem, but drowning in it is.” John Naisbitt, author of Megatrends.

Information overload is a fact of life for company directors, senior managers, and all professionals. Information is coming in from all sides in the form of reports, memos, newspapers, journals, and letters, and now the advent of e-mail and Internet has turned the torrent into a flood.

How can directors cope with the onslaught? Or rather, since we are businesspeople, it seems the question should be how can we turn the reality of the new business environment into an opportunity and a competitive advantage?

“The competitiveness of firms will reflect the way their businesses receive and process information to create intelligence.” John Prescott, Chief Executive, BHP.

Sustainable competitive advantage is ultimately about making better strategic and management decisions than your competitors. And those decisions need to be based on having a better insight than your competitors into how your business environment is developing.

The increasing globalisation and diversification of business means that you can no longer look only at your own industry in your own town. Developments in other countries and industries and in technology could all suddenly and dramatically change the dynamics of the business your companies operate in.

And this is one of the main reasons information overload is a vital issue – not only has there been a dramatic increase in the availability of information, but you now need to be informed on far broader range of issues in order to guide your companies forward in an increasingly rapidly changing environment.

“In the period ahead of us, more important than advances in computer design will be the advances we can make in our understanding of human information processing – of thinking, problem solving, and decision making…” Herbert Simon, Economics Nobel-prize winner

Technology is perhaps at the root of the advent of information overload, though it will also be part of the solution, by providing increasingly refined ways of filtering data to present the most valuable information to the right people.

In the end, however, people are the ultimate processors of information, and – until computers replace company directors – people are the only ones who can effectively integrate and synthesise what they know to make effective management decisions in the light of their business environment.

So, what can we as managers and directors do to improve the way we deal with a world of massive information input, and in fact turn our ability to do so into one of our core competences, and a source of competitive advantage?

There is no quick fix; enhancing our skills requires effort and is an ongoing process. Implementing the following principles can make a real difference to your effectiveness in dealing with the new reality of information overload, and in your role as a company director.

1. Set information objectives. You can’t begin to sort through the ‘infoglut’ unless you know what is most important to you. To set effective information objectives you need to start from your own objectives and those of the company boards you sit on. In order to achieve these, what do you need to know about what is happening in your company, your industry, technology, the economy, and around the world? What are the forces at play which might impact your business and industry? Putting thought into identifying the key areas you need to be informed on, and prioritising these by importance and timeliness will let you know what you should be focusing on.

2. Select your information sources. Once you have a clear idea of your information objectives, you can make a deliberate decision about what sources you will use. Which reports, newspapers, magazines, journals, news services and television programmes do you need to look at regularly? Once you know your priorities you can often rationalise the sources you need, rather than being swamped by a mountain of paper you can never get through. Can you use media summaries or industry updates? Getting the information you need more efficiently is well worth the cost of a subscription. Aim to read things your competitors aren’t likely to see – get a broad perspective.

3. Set time aside for reading. Because reading is not urgent, it often doesn’t get done. Reading and learning are what Stephen Covey refers to as Quadrant II activities – important but not urgent. You will make better decisions and be more effective for the rest of your working career if you keep abreast of developments in your industry, the business environment and technology. How long you should spend reading each day will vary tremendously for each individual, though most directors would benefit enormously from spending at least two hours each day learning more about developments in their industry and the broad social, economic and business environment. Block out periods for reading each day at times which work for you – whether it’s in the early morning, after lunch, the evening, or while commuting.

4. Filter aggressively. You have to be ruthless in getting rid of surplus information. Get yourself off mailing lists, use assistants to filter your messages, and use e-mail filtering software. From there, filtering is in its essence a process of scanning everything to judge according to your information objectives whether it’s worth reading or dealing with in more detail. Those things that pass are read or put aside for your reading time, the rest go in the bin. If you’re still getting too much to read, you need to go back to your objectives and refine them until you only get all the most important information that you have time for. As knowledge management guru Karl Erik Sveiby points out, most information has negative value: if you read something and it’s not useful, you’ve wasted your valuable time.

5. Be open to useful information. This seems to contradict the last dictum, but both must coexist. Nicholas Negroponte, director of MIT’s Media Lab and author of “Being Digital”, talks of the ‘serendipity factor’ in information. If you’re too blinkered in what you look at, you may never stumble on the most valuable information and insights. Companies and industries don’t exist in isolation, they are all part of a broader system. Some executives skim through a trade journal from a different industry each month, for insights into their own situation. Much may be irrelevant, but you can also find valuable information and insights, and you can be sure your competition aren’t seeing it!

6. People are your best resource. In all the hype over Internet, intranets, groupware and push technology, many seem to have forgotten that often the most effective and efficient way of finding information is through people. How well-informed you are depends largely on the quality of your personal network, and how effectively you can gather and trade information through the people you know. If you need to learn about recent developments in a field or find out something – ask the right person!

7. Develop your reading and note-taking skills. There are many courses and books available on developing reading speed and comprehension. If you’re going to spend a couple of hours a day reading, then it’s well worth investing time and money if it can bring even a small improvement in your effectiveness. And everyone, however fast and effective they already are, can improve their reading skills. Taking effective notes can be one of the best ways of assimilating new ideas and perspectives into a framework which can help you make better decisions. Mind-mapping, which allows you to represent the relationships between concepts, can be a very valuable tool for managers and directors.

8. Sleep on it! The human mind learns by connecting new ideas and information with your existing memories and experience. The most useful insights and perspectives often come after your unconscious mind has had the opportunity to sort through and link ideas together. Some of the ways you can assist this process and tap your intuition are by finding ways to represent your ideas visually, regularly putting yourself in relaxed, meditative states, and playing games which require spontaneity.

7 replies
  1. Manny
    Manny says:

    Great post and great blog. I’ll definitely be back. I have been fascinated by recent research on unconscious problem-solving, and have a thread (“Mind Power”) on my blog. It is fascianting to see the concept being picked up in the maintream.

  2. Knowledge Jolt with Jack
    Knowledge Jolt with Jack says:

    Ross Dawson gives eight steps to thriving on information overload

    Rather than fussing about the fact of information overload, Ross Dawson suggests that maybe it is something to thrive on, if managed properly.

  3. Dave Irwin
    Dave Irwin says:

    Thanks for this very practical article. I have passed it along to friends and teaching colleagues.
    I’m reminded of some of the observations in The Courage to Create by Rollo May.

  4. mattblair.ca
    mattblair.ca says:

    Links from Lifehacker

    I don’t subscribe to very many website feeds, but Lifehacker is well worth following. Billed as “a blog that covers tips and tricks for streamlining your life with computers (and sometimes without),” Lifehacker is a constant source of great ideas…

  5. ieclectic
    ieclectic says:

    For all my professional life I’ve struggled with information; keeping it organized, keeping on top of multiple industries for multiple clients, keeping fresh. The biggest challenge I had was finding the time outside of “required” reading for inspiration, serendipity, new perspectives. I didn’t have writers block, I had idea block! As I’ve aged, I’ve grown farther from that inner child. If you’re interested, I’ve put together 250+ links to ideation in the Eclectic Guide To Ideation at http://www.ieclectic.com

  6. dave platter
    dave platter says:

    Great post. I wonder if the popularity of this post is a sign that few people are actually in control of their use of social media.
    In fact, I think that social media is creating a generation of social outcasts. These are people who can’t unplug because their fragile sense of self depends on constant electronic feedback.
    Heaven forbid if the power goes out. :)

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