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Safety guide: How to deal with information overload

6 min read

Information in abundance…It is not a small creek, no. It is a huge, full-grown river that slaps huge waves of information right into our face every day. At some point you run the risk of sinking, find yourself lost in a sea of information.

Ready to face information overload? We have a lifebelt ready, so let’s dive in!

Why information overload is a bad thing

Isn't it a good thing to have a lot of information available? After all, if you have information, you can use it as soon as you need it, right? Basically, yes. Unfortunately, it is not that simple.

The phrase information overload was first coined in the late 1960s by Bertram Gross, a political science professor. It was the beginning of the information age… Today, in the 21st century, everyone of us knows, what they mean, when people talk about information overload. After all, everyone of us knows how it feels. We all fight against it - wittingly or unwittingly. We have “too much information to work with”.

It’s probably not the first time you’ve heard that our attention spans are shrinking. It is not without reason. Our brains are currently loaded with 34 GB of information daily. Is it a lot? Comparing 2011 to 1986, an average American is consuming five times as much information every day.

When it comes to statistics related directly to information overload, a report by the Pew Research Center points out that 20% of Americans feel overwhelmed with information. Many of them find it crushing when they need to manage too much information at work.

Self-evidently, this change has also a huge impact on business – also and in particular on project management. Projects are becoming more complex, but people’s attention span is overstretched. How can this fit together? Working on each task involves making many decisions, large and small. If this ability is compromised, it has a devaststing effect on the entire performance. Both top managers and junior managers as well as every single team member – they are prone to that. One thing is certain: we need a solution.

Take time to prepare

Before you even start working on a new task, be sure to take a deep breath and prepare yourself properly. Since we face so much information every day, thinking about upcomping tasks and deadlines can be overwhelming (even frightening) - at least until you get yourself a first overview by creating a detailed action plan. A simple to-do might help a lot already and usually, people notice that this list is by far less intimidating than they assumed it would be. In any case, with good preparation you’ll be less likely to lose a lot of time on eternal back-and-forths. A good idea is to group similar tasks together. This way, you don’t have to constantly think your way into new tasks and situations, and - as the saying goes - you kill a lot of birds with one stone.

Anything that could help organizing and preparing? Good that you’re asking! Visualizing tasks does a good job on getting a little structure in that brain of yours… and on the screen, of course. For example, it pays off to create a Gantt chart to have a clear overview of all the deadlines. However, the Kanban Board is all about visualizing task cards and workflows.

Set your priorities

As we were talking about the Gantt chart: showing priorities and depencies is its speciality. In any case, you should assign deadlines to every single task. Once you know which issues are the most urgent, you can use a project management software to set priorities. By doing this please spent a thought on how much time these tasks will actually take to be completed.

Place the most important tasks at the top of the list or task board or simply detect them in the Gantt chart, if you are using one. Of course, you’re going to address them first when determining the information needs. All other tasks will need to wait for your attention in order to not overload your brain with to much information again. Rule no. 1: Hold your horses!

Manage your information

Now that the top 2 or 3 tasks with the highest priority have been identified, it is time to gather and organize information. "Less is more" especially when it comes to the former. Why? Those who are too busy with different sources of information tend to get entangled, invest too much time and finally have difficulties making decisions. Ask yourself: What is actually necessary and what is not?

Again, here’s where project management tools come to the rescue. For instance, with Stackfield you can attach your files to tasks and appointments. This way, you can access everything in one place.

Project management tools can save an enormous amount of time, but it is also worth developing some habits to get more out of the solution. For example, cleaning up your dashboard from time to time is a good idea. Constantly looking at 50 or even 100 notifications by checking the dashboard does anything but reducing information overload.

Drop multitasking

Although it may seem like a good idea at times, multitasking won’t get you far.

According to cognitive psychology, our minds can hold only from 5 to 9 items in our short-time memory. In other words, the more things we’re trying to do at the same time, the fewer things we can focus on. There are many pieces of research which prove that cognitive load impairs your performance and that switching between tasks makes your performance slower. Sometimes, you may even keep forgetting what you’ve been working on when you switch back to work on a task! When you keep jumping between different tasks, it’s much harder to tune back into the flow.

Even when you feel like you’re used to multitasking and can’t imagine working in any other way, there are different ways to help you change your habits. For instance, you can try implementing the Pomodoro method. The idea is to break work into shorter intervals, during which you’re supposed to remain fully focused on the task. Usually, the time frame is 25 minutes, a 5-minute break plus a longer break after every hour.

Step away from the screen

In fact, breaks are quite essential when it comes to increasing productivity, because they push our absorption capacity again. The most important thing: stop staring at the screen during that time! However, this might be harder for modern society than it actually sounds. Even though we're actually aware that we’ll only be able to zone out as soon as we switch off the screens.

Fortunately, some top-class entrepreneurs are well aware of this. For instance, Arianna Huffington, the founder of The Huffington Post, has recently devoted most of her time to promoting a healthy lifestyle. Her new startup, Thrive Global, is raising awareness of how screen time impacts our lives and our well-being. Among the many tips that can be found online: free the bedroom as far as possible from mobile phone, laptop and TV screens and, if possible, introduce small breaks during work to distance yourself a little bit.

Paying attention to such things (screen-free times, regular breaks, etc.) must also become part of the team leadership. However, the management often considers increasing efficiency a management task (after all, they wants to achieve goals, right?) but they don't see what's necessary to do so.

If you feel like you are not able to clear your mind, try this: Go outside every day for 5 minutes, get some fresh air and try to perceive your surroundings consciously. I bet, some of you will be surprised how few real impressions they usually get while starring on smartphones and the like.

Ride the wave and finally, you’re getting things done.

Information overload is a real threat. It can affect both professional performance and personal well-being. For the sake of both, it pays off to learn some good practices for dealing with too much information. In the end, you’re gonna be less stressed and more efficient in carrying out your tasks. Finally, you’re getting things done.

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Lena Wimmer
About the Author:
Lena Wimmer is Product Marketing Manager at Stackfield. She is passionate about American literary history, great content and cinematography.
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