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Managing Information Overload: A Personal Plan 


Genie Tyburski, Web Manager, The Virtual Chase


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12 June 2008. Information overload has a significant impact on lawyer productivity. Seven in 10 lawyers believe they are inundated with information and 2 in 5 think they are headed for an information "breaking point" (LexisNexis Workplace Productivity Survey 2008).

Managing information overload depends to some degree on personal circumstances. Your work may be more time-sensitive than mine. My work may require more up-to-the-minute information than yours. Some people may have to work harder at turning off the incoming information channels. Those unfamiliar with certain technical solutions may have to invest time in learning something new before they reap the rewards.

What this means is that you have to find a method that works for you. To that end, what follows are some ideas for managing information overload. Adopt, modify or eliminate them as suits your situation.

Plan and Prioritize.

It's not always possible for those who provide a service to develop, and stick to, a daily plan. To some degree, the needs of clients, customers or patrons will shape the day.

But if you've been doing what you do for awhile, you have some idea of how the average day or week proceeds. Develop your plan around this knowledge. Prioritize the regular tasks you want to accomplish. Build in some flexibility for the unexpected.

Your plan should include limits. Suppose Friday afternoons are usually quiet, so you set aside 3 hours every week at this time to catch up with professional reading. But a client's call sets you back an hour or more.

Do you squeeze the time lost into the following week's schedule? I suggest not because if such interruptions happen regularly, or if the following week's schedule cannot accommodate the additional time, you could fall further behind. You'll lose a sense of accomplishment and you'll begin to feel overloaded.

Instead, let the reading (or the hour's reading you lost) go. Shelve it, or send it on. If it contains something you really need to know, that information will cross your desk again. If it's something you'll need to know later, you'll educate yourself when you need to know it.

Turn Off or Schedule the Incoming Information Flow.

If you must answer the phone when you're in the office, then you must. Can you instead turn off other incoming channels - e-mail, instant messaging, RSS, Twitter or any technology that appears to demand your immediate attention?

Consider how much time these technologies waste. (They can, of course, be time-savers, when managed. See below.) Out of the 50 e-mail messages you received this morning, how many comprise essential information or communication? If the answer is a relatively small number, then turn it off. Check it 3 times per day, or less, if possible.

Limit checking RSS feeds to once per day, or less. If you track (called "follow") people via Twitter, connect only to those who provide information essential to your work. Consider setting up a separate account to follow family or friends. If you receive too many non-essential interruptions through instant messaging or text messaging, turn them off and schedule times to check in.

Reduce or Mange the Incoming Information Flow.

You have more control over incoming information than you might think. One obvious example is opt-in newsletters you receive by e-mail. You may, of course, opt-out.

But suppose the information is highly relevant to what you do. Consider switching to the RSS version, if one is available. Then, rather than cluttering your inbox, the information will be waiting for you when you open your RSS reader. Better, it will disappear (unless you actively save it) when you close the reader. If you find that you're marking the issues read without reading them, then perhaps the newsletter isn't as relevant to your work as you thought.

Delete any feeds you mark read, without actually reading them, 2 or 3 times in a row.

If the e-mail newsletters you read do not have an RSS version, set up rules to sort them into special folders as they come in. This, too, will prevent clutter in your inbox.

Much of the advice on managing e-mail requires that you 1) spend an entire day organizing it or 2) delete everything after acting on it. Neither of these options works for me.

I depend heavily on rules to sort my incoming e-mail. Currently, my virtualchase.com e-mail is processed through 86 rules with spam-filtering minimized. What remains in my inbox I act on, when necessary, and delete or keep. I read pre-sorted e-mail once per day or less. I check the in-box about 3 times per day. I periodically clean up the folders and the inbox.

The Bottom Line

To be productive, you need time to focus on what you're doing. Interruptions decrease your focus. Remove - even if for a short time - those you can. If you invest time in experimenting with new technologies, you might discover other ways to manage incoming information and save time.

Above all, set reasonable goals and prioritize them. Plan your workday to the extent possible. If you accomplish most of what you plan, you'll feel productive. Moreover, if you let go of what isn't at the time essential, you'll feel less overloaded.




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Created: 12 June 2008
URL: https://www.virtualchase.com/articles/information_overload.html

Suggestions: Genie Tyburski, tvceditor [at] virtualchase [dot] com