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Reduce Information Overload

Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.

– Gertrude Stein

Information overload is a big problem in modern society. We only have so much time and mental capacity to process information, and if we are not careful, the abundance can overwhelm us. We need to make it a priority to wisely manage the information-sharing systems at our companies, including email, phone calls, and voicemail.

Emails can be a big productivity killer if not managed properly. How many emails are in your inbox right now? If you’re like most people, you have dozens, perhaps hundreds. I know a couple folks who have over a thousand! What good is that? Having so many emails in your inbox will make you feel overwhelmed just by looking at it. How is that respecting yourself?

I used to have more than a couple hundred emails in my inbox at any one time. When it got to be too many, I’d re-sort the inbox by sender and mass delete emails from people I considered to be a lower priority than others. Yes, I really did that. I was not exactly showing respect for people, let alone being mindful of the problems it could create for them and the organization.

This changed for me when a few years ago I came across a blog post touting “Inbox: Zero.” My reaction was, really? Zero emails in your inbox? Although I was skeptical, I gave it a try and haven’t looked back since. I can’t remember the last time I had more than ten emails in my inbox, and I try to get to zero by each evening.

To stay near or at Inbox: Zero takes effort and discipline, which needs to turn into habit. These are the steps to do it:

  1. Aggressively unsubscribe from newsletters and promotional emails, unless you are willing to read them within one day. With the ones that remain, move them to a “To Read” folder immediately, or send them there automatically via an email rule.
  2. Aggressively remove yourself from group distribution lists that are not critical.
  3. If you were just cc’d or bcc’d on an email, scan quickly and make every attempt to not reply, then delete. Ask the sender to remove you from the chain if your attention isn’t critical to the matter.
  4. Add (or decline) invitations to your calendar immediately. Be aggressive about declining if you don’t believe the meeting adds value—remember the Just Say No section above.
  5. Try to take action (or respond) to an email immediately whenever possible. Otherwise, move it to a “To-Do” folder. I’ve now become good enough at this that my inbox is my residual to-do folder, generally with less than five tasks to be completed. Many people say this is the worst use for an inbox, but with so few emails it works well.

I can’t describe how liberating this process is. Now, I can give far better attention to the few remaining emails I have and generate more thoughtful and focused responses while respecting the senders and their issues.

Beyond cleaning up your own inbox, you can also help create a better email culture within your organization. First, be very judicious about who is copied on emails, and insist others respect your time as well. An “FYI,” if truly needed in the first place, does not need to be sent to a broad audience—that’s generally more a “CYA” (cover your you-know-what). Second, insist that any desired action be very clearly stated in an email, right at the top. Third, be very concise with original and reply emails. I had a big problem with this, and was known as the king of the longwinded email. I continue to struggle with being too wordy, and have a goal to try to keep emails to three sentences or less.

There are other aspects to email management that help increase your productivity. For example, I try to only check email four times a day, keeping in line with the pomodoro method I described earlier. I hope to reduce that to three times next year. I turned off auto-checking on my phone so I don’t get disturbed with each new email. I also aggressively clear out old saved emails. They may not technically cost anything, and they are searchable history, but they still seem like clutter. I am now actually very close to not only Inbox: Zero, but also Mailbox: Zero!

While email is a known productivity killer, phone and voicemail can also create information overload, if not managed properly. I have never been a fan of using the phone, even though I know it is often a more effective and immediate communication tool than email. I prefer to receive an email so I can properly contemplate and formulate a response. Many organizations, such as Coca-Cola, are turning off their voicemail systems to push people to use email or live phone conversations.

Because of this, and because people know I’m not very good at responding to phone calls, I more regularly use voicemails. (If I did, I’d probably manage very similarly to my email inbox: aggressively filter, and respond immediately.) One thing about the voicemail system that I do love is that any incoming voicemails are also sent to my email inbox. There’s even a service that will autotranscribe them into the email, so I don’t have to listen to the audio (plus, they are searchable). I know several people that like sending audio messages via email, but in my opinion, they are wasteful for the receiver, as they cannot be quickly scanned and searched. My friend Paul Akers uses them very effectively, but I know others that take two minutes to convey ten seconds of information—which isn’t respecting my time.

Regardless of how you accomplish it, reducing your information overload is very important if you want to be an effective leader. By taking steps to slim down the amount of information that reaches you, you will be able to be more effective with the tasks that truly need your time and attention.