How Effective Leaders Deal with Information Overload


Information overload is not only a productivity killer; it can also lead to low morale, anxiety and mistakes.  The U.S. Military has identified “information overload” as the underlying cause of several major mistakes in the war in Afghanistan, and is taking steps to address the issue.  A recent article in the New York Times explains that modern warfare generates unprecedented amounts of data to help soldiers make better decisions, but:

Research shows that the kind of intense multitasking required in such situations can make it hard to tell good information from bad. The military faces a balancing act: how to help soldiers exploit masses of data without succumbing to overload.

If the challenge facing modern soldiers sounds eerily familiar to what you face every day in the modern business world, you’re not alone.  IBM’s recent launch of the “Jeopardy!”-playing computer system called Watson, is validation that corporations are themselves drowning in data and struggling to make sense of it all.  Watson uses specially designed analytics software, along with the processor power of 90 servers and 360 computer chips, to help executives make better decisions.

Watson may help organizations deal with this problem, but what does the individual leader do to address the continuous stream of email, iphones, twitter, blogs, websites and other distractions?

  1. Remember, You’re In Control.  It’s easy to forget that technology is supposed to work for you.  You’re not a slave to technology.  Take control by turning off all alerts and processing your email in batches.  Because you’re in control, you get to decide what you’re working on at any given moment, and where to focus your attention.  That doesn’t mean you can just ignore email and other data as it streams in all day long, but it does mean you can confine your email management time to short bursts of rapid processing.
  2. Manage Your Day From Your Calendar and Task List, Not Your Inbox.  This is easier said than done, especially because we are addicted to the little “high” we experience every time we check a new email in our inbox.  However, the calendar gets way too little respect and attention from leaders, especially compared to the inbox.  Your calendar is your game plan for the day, and the meetings, phone calls and activities that make up a calendar and task list, each require appropriate preparation and focus.  Spend your time and energy on the activities that will help you deliver results and achieve your goals.
  3. Define a Personal Purpose and Vision.  If you want to conquer information overload, you have to know where you want to go.  Imagine you are a boat adrift on the sea in the midst of a nasty storm.  Information overload is like the rain, wind and waves, pushing your boat in all directions.  To counter these forces and eventually overcome this storm, it helps to have a destination in mind and the navigational tools to get there.  Identifying your personal purpose and vision, what you want to achieve with your life (not just your career), is a first step toward defining that destination.   By settings goals and objectives, you are placing navigational markers to help you along the journey.  Without a clear sense of the destination, and a plan to get there, don’t be surprised if you remain adrift on the ocean, in a perpetual state of unease and lacking any sense of progress and accomplishment.
  4. Find Time for Reflection. President Lincoln was an avid reader of newspapers.   If we consider newspapers the “Internet” of his day, he spent a lot of time online.   But he was also known for spending a lot of time reflecting on the major problems he faced as President.  He balanced his time with thoughtful analysis, often times writing out in long hand the positions for and against a policy and carefully weighing the options.  He deliberately moved out of the White House during the summers and into a kind of retreat house called the Soldiers Home.  Here he was less distracted and carved out time for reflection as well as conversation with trusted advisors.   In a similar way, we all must find time to break away from information overload to carve out time for reflection and analysis.  For me it is walking to work.  For others it might be keeping a journal, meditating or prayer.

If you’re interested in this topic and want to learn more, download a free white paper on Using Email Effectively.

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