Turn Down the Noise: Tips for Managing Information Overload

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In the latest Indiana Jones movie, Cate Blanchett’s character sought the omniscient knowledge of the Crystal Skull with villainous zeal. But when she at last gained access to the unfiltered deluge of information … well, let’s just say it was more than she could process. 

Now, I don’t expect the average knowledge worker will spontaneously combust while battling information overload, but there can be no mistake that we are drowning in data. It comes at us from all directions, at all times of the day and night, and in several different forms. Organizations are struggling to manage the constant stream of information, but most are only slowing the flow. In order to create real order from the chaos and turn all that information into usable knowledge, we must first learn to manage it.

More is Not Better

Rain, cheesecake, reality TV – without a doubt, there can be too much of a good thing. The same is true of information. Individually, an email, blog post or text message is manageable and has value. Combined with hundreds of other emails, blog posts and myriad other data, the value of each is diminished (or eliminated) as we struggle to process the whole.

A Basex report called “We Have Met the Enemy, and He Is Us” states that on a daily basis some 300 billion emails are sent, 2 million+ blog posts are written and 532 million status updates are posted on Facebook. This is just a fraction of the Internet data transmitted each day, but the mass quantity of email, a universally contested form of communication, is enough to raise a red flag. Factor in video, photos and other social media activity and it’s easy to understand why we feel overwhelmed by it all.

Even organizations that limit or ban social media or personal Web-browsing during work hours are assailed with information, much of which is not imperative to getting work done. Although necessary, the information that does get through still causes employees to feel bombarded, resulting in costly business challenges.

It has been reported that workplace interruptions due to too much information cost U.S. companies $650 billion per year, according to Basex, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Considering lost opportunity costs, time wasted searching for specific information, and the overall decline of productivity, the related price of too much information is staggering.

Case in point: a study conducted by Mindjet in December 2011 found that UK office workers spent more than two working weeks per year searching for information they’d seen but couldn’t find – a figure that is costing UK business £1,248.51 per year per employee.

The UK is hardly alone in the struggle against the data deluge. A worldwide study by LexisNexis showed that data overload is a pervasive problem around the globe. In fact, surveyed office workers said that information overload is taking a heavy toll on workplace productivity and the quality of their work.

These studies represent just a portion of the widespread and negative impact of data overload, but it’s clear that this is a problem businesses cannot afford to ignore.

Overloaded and Overflowing into our Personal Lives

Not surprisingly, the problem of information overload has a secondary, though no less serious, impact on workplace morale. More than half of surveyed global workers report that they are becoming discouraged by their inability to cope with the overwhelming amount of data, which leads to extra work, arguments with co-workers, late or incomplete assignments and generally poorer quality of work. 

And it doesn’t end there. With the increasing adoption of smart devices, employees everywhere are dealing with data in their personal lives too. In March of this year, Nielsen reported that smartphones now account for 50 percent of all mobile phones in the U.S. Tablets and Internet enabled e-readers make up another 30 percent of the U.S. market. Thanks to our infatuation with mobile devices, we now have access to information anytime and anywhere. Consequently, we’re consuming more data than ever before.

Who among us hasn’t watched a video, updated Facebook or checked-in on Foursquare while waiting at the doctor’s office or heading to a restaurant? Okay, so those activities aren’t bad, per se, but how often have you checked your email at the dinner table or before shutting out the light at night and then regretted it, as you laid awake thinking about the next day’s agenda or overdue project?

Gone are the days when our work and personal lives were distinctly separate. At least one of our parents worked a 9-to-5 job and when they returned home at the end of the workday, their work stayed at the office.

Not so today. Our work goes home and everywhere else we go, along with our mobile device of choice. Naturally, it follows that we also take home all that information and the resulting stress, as we try to manage the onslaught.

It’s Big Data and it’s a Big Deal

Here’s the thing: For all the great information coming at them, most organizations simply don’t have a handle on it.

In effect, organizations are paralyzed by the sheer quantity of data they must handle. From the IT department to the marketing group to HR, everyone is looking for effective processes, technologies and tools to gain control. Some popular methods include:

  • Adding more data storage.
  • Supplementing with online document sharing tools.
  • Increasing restrictions on incoming file size or types of information.
  • Disallowing social media activity during work hours.
  • Enforcing archiving and/or storage limitations for employees.
  • Limiting email usage (or eliminate it altogether, as some companies have done).

These are all relevant measures, but they’re only somewhat effective. Buying more storage space or using online document sharing tools may help capture the data, but it won’t help organize it or enable employees to act on the information.
Restricting social media use at work may seem like a smart move on many levels. That said, a great deal of interesting and potentially relevant information is passed through social media channels every day, as the boundaries blur between work and personal life. Important news is often broken on Twitter before any television networks pick it up. Employees’ social media communications can provide a valuable conduit to industry and competitive news.

And then there’s email. Mindjet’s study on the UK’s data dilemma found that UK workers miss one-third of their emails. And LexisNexis found that 91 percent of U.S. workers routinely delete or discard emails without reading them.

Email is a necessary evil and it can also be very effective, if managed properly. Yet, for every employee with a zero inbox, there are three others with upwards of 1,000 emails in their inbox alone. Multiply that by 1,000 or 10,000 inboxes across an organization and it’s easy to understand why restricting email types or sizes, and enforcing archiving is an idea worth considering. But it also begs the question, “What if there’s important information hidden in those overflowing inboxes?”

Instituting broad restrictions or limitations on incoming data is one way to minimize the data deluge, but organizations must also consider the information needs of the various business functions and the ramifications of these data reduction measures. For example, the marketing department requires broad information from multiple external sources. If marketing is unable to access the content it needs, this could result in a missed opportunity, thereby offsetting the benefit of less data.

Tips for Managing the Overload

The issue of too much data has moved beyond limiting its influx.

At the enterprise level, organizations can tackle the problem with a combination of process and technology. Naturally, any of the data management solutions can help, but given that it’s the individual employees who are tasked with organizing and acting on the information they receive, let’s look at some of the ways to ease their burden.

  1. Filter information at the source. Prioritizing, queuing and delegating are just a few ways to manage information overload. By immediately filtering each item you receive and making a determination to act on it, delegate it, delete it, or flag it for future, you can reduce the amount of unfiltered, unread information that’s weighing you down.
  2. Aggregate news sources. Rather than trying to keep up with multiple news feeds, use a tool such as Google News to compile your favorite news sources and feeds.
  3. Switch from push to pull. That is, download content on-demand versus a constant flow. Consider changing your email setting on your PC or smartphone to pull or to a less frequent push schedule during personal time.
  4. Set up digital “fasting” times to maintain creativity and avoid burnout. Certainly, a good idea during personal time, but this also provides a much-needed break for unproductive, overwhelmed brains during work hours.
  5. Use tools that organize information and allow you to take action more effectively. According to that LexisNexis survey, 72 percent of U.S. workers strongly agree that they would be more productive if they didn’t have to constantly switch back and forth between applications to get their work done.
  6. Visualize the data. The human brain is not built to process data in a linear fashion, which is how most of the information we use in the workplace is displayed. According to recent research by UK-based Mindlab International, individuals carrying out common office tasks are 17 percent more productive and use 20 percent less mental resources when data is displayed more visually, such as through visual maps.
  7. Keep work at work. Take control of personal time and establish rules for how and when work contact occurs. Keep clear rules about “offline time” at home.

Seek Knowledge, not Information

At the risk of a data-driven mental meltdown (not unlike Ms. Blanchett’s ill-fated character), we can’t stop seeking information, nor should we stop its flow. Rather, we should employ strategies that exercise our ability to organize, communicate and collaborate, to discern useful knowledge from useless noise.

Looking ahead, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news: Our data deluge is only going to get worse. According to Cisco's Visual Networking Index, by 2015, there will be three billion Internet users transmitting 245 terabytes of data per second. The good news is this is also an opportunity; you can arm yourself with helpful strategies and tips to better manage and mine this useful information to better meet your short and long-term goals.

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