Monday, September 9, 2013

Information Overload - This article appeared in the March, 2011 edition of the Durham Business Times

To browse my leadership book, click here then click on the Google Preview button. 
Find me via email: info(at)ascentassociates(dot)ca or visit my web site or blog 



No matter what we do for a living, all of us face an avalanche of distractions each day that can throw us off our game.    We must constantly keep asking ourselves, “What do I have to pay attention to right now, what can wait until later, what might be good to know but not essential to my success and what can I safely ignore?”

According to a recent article in the McKinsey Quarterly on information overload (, the challenge of staying focused in midst of an excess of information pre-dates the Computer Age.  Writing in 1967, management guru Peter Drucker recommended that executives reserve large blocks of time on their calendars for thinking, not answer the phone and return calls only once or twice a day.  While Drucker’s readers in the 60’s didn’t have to deal with digital technology, his admonitions nonetheless ring true today.

Those with leadership responsibility at any level face a torrent of email messages, phone calls, text messages, Tweets, Facebook postings, blog comments and messages on other social media platforms that might contain useful customer feedback or information about competitors, new products and business trends.  How can we avoid being buried by this information tsunami?

Many of us believe that if we excel at multitasking, we can stay on top of this wave.  Research cited in the McKinsey article reveals that multitasking is an ineffective coping mechanism leading to lower productivity, lower creativity and impaired decision-making.   The reality is that multitasking slow us down.  The human brain does its best work when focused on one task at a time.  Individuals may dispute this conclusion, but the evidence is in.  For example, why is it now illegal to text while driving? 

The inefficiency caused by multitasking is due to the brain’s inability to let us perform two actions at the same time.  While multitasking may allow us to cross off simpler tasks on our to-do lists, it rarely helps us resolve more difficult problems.  Multitasking can become simple procrastination. 

Multitasking can also make us anxious.  People required to multitask show higher levels of stress.  The information overload associated with multitasking lessens job satisfaction and can disrupt personal relationships.  And multitasking can become addictive by causing specific ‘emergency’ hormones to be released in our bodies.

So if multitasking doesn’t work, what can we do?
·                     Be highly disciplined in how you use your time
·                     Constantly set and update your priorities
·                     Be focused on what matters most.  Beware of cruising through information that may be nice to know, but not essential for the tasks at hand.  As one CEO said, “You have to guard against the danger of over-eating at an interesting intellectual buffet”
·                     Encourage your colleagues to respect your priorities.  One colleague of mine used to place a “Focus Time” sign at her work station.  She made it clear to all of us that unless the business was in immediate jeopardy and her input was critical to resolving a crisis that we were to leave her alone.  She only posted this sign a few times a week, and usually only for a few hours, so we respected her wishes
·                     Filter the information as it comes at you.  Know what you can ignore, what you can skim, what you must read in detail later and what you must deal with right now
·                     Give your brain down time during the work day to solve problems and reset your priorities so that you are focusing on the right things. A quick walk, a short workout, and a set period of time away from all communication technology can all help the brain to do its best work

Accept the fact that multitasking is not heroic.  Understand that it is really counterproductive.  Instead of doing a half-baked job on five tasks at once, then be forced to take additional time to fix your mistakes, work on one task at a time but get it right the first time


·                     Pay attention to how you use your time
·                     Constantly refresh your priorities
·                     Focus on what matters most
·                     Make sure your colleagues know and respect your priorities
·                     Filter the information coming at you
·                     Give your brain some down time every day
·                     Stop multitasking.  It’s counterproductive; it wears you down

No comments:

Post a Comment