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Aug 26, 2013

There are many things of which a wise man might wish to be ignorant.”Ralph Waldo Emerson, American philosopher 

Social researcher S.A. Wurman once calculated that every issue of The New York Times contains more information than the average person in Elizabethan England learned in their lifetime.

Wurman released this startling tidbit back in 1987 — before the info-splosion we call the Internet really got started. Imagine how much worse we have it today, with our daily deluge of print and broadcast news, web pages, social media, email, and more.

94% say they have had information overload

Some researchers claim we now create more information every two days than we did from ancient times up to the year 2003. Add in easy access to nearly every book, magazine, and newspaper ever published, and it’s hardly surprising that, according to research analyst Jonathan B. Spira, “94 percent of knowledge workers have felt overwhelmed to the point of incapacitation by the amount of information they encounter on a daily basis.”

There are nearly 79 million information workers in the United States alone. The fact that 94 percent of us have been vapor-locked by information overload at one time or another has sobering ramifications for productivity — to the tune of billions of dollars per year.

A Rose is a Rose is a Rose

Gertrude Stein saw this coming long ago. Early in the 20th century, she pointed out, “Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.” Her observation seems especially apropos today, most of a century later.

Stein had no trouble calling a spade a spade; she spoke her mind about whatever she observed. A true iconoclast and self-described genius, she helped redefine English literature, breaking it out of 19th century constraints and pushing the envelope of experimental fiction, poetry, and plays. She spent most of her adult life in France, reigning as a guru over a salon of expatriate American artists and writers, dispensing the common sense that so many were losing even then to the influx of new information.

As with so many other aspects of modern work life, the only way to overcome “infobesity” is to triage mercilessly, and then reduce your intake forever after. Keep these tips in mind as you work toward stemming the info-tide.

 Reducing your information intake

  1. Limit your exposure to external information at work. Rather than check your social media and news feeds during your lunch and breaks, actually take those breaks. Eat, talk to people, go for a walk — just get away from your desk. You have enough work-related information to deal with. When you do check the news, stick to newspaper and iPhone formats. They’re more consolidated, with fewer links and ads to drag you off in other directions.
  2. Check email and phone messages only at specific times. If your job allows, set aside brief blocks of time where you focus exclusively on your messages. I process email five to seven times a day, getting the inbox down to zero, re-prioritizing accordingly, and then working for a focused period. When I’m focused, I don’t check email (turn off your global alerts), turn my phone to airplane mode, and forward my calls to voice mail.
  3. Set filters on your email. Every email client lets you filter email according to specific rules, automatically discarding messages that fail to meet those standards. Blacklists allow you to tell the system to immediately discard email from specific addresses, so you never even see it. White lists, on the other hand, specify precisely who you’re willing to receive mail from, accepting only their emails and blocking the rest. You can also create rules to automatically file with certain words in the subject line in particular folders, or play a sound when an email is received from a particular person.
  4. Employ the right means of communication. A brief phone call can often save days of email strings. If you have an email that goes back and forth and back and forth, it’s often more efficient just to pick up the phone. In other cases, nothing beats a face-to-face meeting. Rather than waste time and proliferate unnecessary information, carefully select the most efficient means of communication for each issue you face.
  5. Hone your online research skills. Take advantage of Boolean operators and other simple shortcuts to streamline your searches and return fewer, better-targeted results.
  6. Maximize your reading time. If you have a lot of material to wade through, adopt a speed-reading system like J. Michael Bennett’s Rhythmic Perusal method (my personal favorite). Also carry around material for downtime reading, either as printouts in your briefcase or electronic copies on an e-reader. That way, you can read whenever you’re stuck in traffic, standing in line, or waiting for the doctor to see you. You might also dedicate the occasional weekend to catching up on work-related reading.

Grabbing a Lifeline

If you ever find yourself paralyzed by information overload, try scaling back as far as you possibly can. Ideally, you’ll end up well below your overwhelm threshold, whereupon you can start adding back information sources one at a time, gradually refining your ability to handle each until you feel you can add another.

Maintain with the methods I’ve outlined here, and you’ll find it easier to handle the inflow in the future.

Are you among the 94 percent of people who’ve been temporarily paralyzed by information overload? What put you there, and how did you save yourself?

This was originally published on Laura Stack’s The Productivity Pro blog.

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