Coping with information overload

2 min read
First Published: 
Feb 2007

A little more than a decade ago, if you’d used words like google, blog, spam, email, internet, iPod, PDA, instant messaging, Blackberry (unless referring to the fruit) and e-zines, people wouldn’t have had a clue what you were talking about. In fact, this e-zine would have been almost impossible to produce… with its “home” in the United Kingdom and its editor in the United States.

Today, it’s not just that those items simply exist, but that they are growing exponentially – and creating information overload.

Consider for example a study by Professor Peter Lyman of the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California, Berkeley; and Professor Hal R. Varian, of that University’s School of Information.

They note that the amount of new information stored on paper, film, and magnetic and optical media has doubled in the past three years. Instant messaging generates 5 billion messages a day, they say, and email generates 31 billion communications annually, or double the number in 2003. That’s 400,000 Terabytes of new information worldwide: a mere 2 Terabytes represents the content of an entire academic research library.

And it’s not that all of this overload has simply replaced paper. The researchers note that it takes 786 million trees to produce the world’s paper supply. Not only that, but more than 90% goes to produce office documents. Worse, it’s said that the average office worker is interrupted every three minutes by a phone call or an email.

How to cope with this avalanche of information without being buried in it?

There are several strategies for getting the information you want, and avoiding what gets in the way of finding it:

  • Have a clear purpose
  • Plan ahead
  • Prioritise
  • Don’t be tempted to go down blind alleys
  • Eliminate noise and interruptions
  • Use email filters
  • Use search tools effectively
  • Use abstracts, synopses, and executive summaries where possible.

Bruce DeBonis, a senior executive with international financial and advisory services company PriceWaterhouseCoopers, has a personal approach to information overload: “I tell the people who report to me,” he says, “about email and voicemail etiquette: put the action item in subject heading; use voicemail more. Pick up the phone and call; don’t be phone-phobic. Email can be cumbersome if it’s not streamlined and specific.”

Remember Sisyphus, who was forced by the gods to push a huge rock up towards a mountain top whence it would roll back down again? Don’t let information overload get you down. Keep focused and keep cool!

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David Woods
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