Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Brain Cramps - Information Overload

Over the next several posts I'm going to be reflecting on several concepts that are shaping our world, specifically how we are dealing with technological advances. The first couple, you'll recognize immediately. Once we dispense with the obvious, I'll delve into the more obtuse. Along the way, I'll provide some pointers to the various techniques I've investigated for handling the brain cramps that can occur.

The first concept is Information Overload. This phrase was made so popular by Toffler that we all think we understand what it means. At the core, this condition arises when we have too much information to easily digest or understand. While problematic, there are many techniques for dealing with an onslaught of data. The real issues arise in the follow-up problems for which this is just a precursor.

If it was just about handling a stream of consistent data, we could apply lots of ways to survive and possibly thrive. It is when the information coming at us is always changing, always new, and therefore increasing in complexity and depth that our normal coping mechanisms start to break down. For now, let's just understand some techniques for managing Information Overload.

If you want to be success and handling large volumes of information, the first step is to Be Deliberate.(If you've read any of my previous writing, you probably knew what I was going to say.)

Like any activity, you won't be nearly as efficiently successful until you have clearly defined intentions. With your goals understood and an end-result in clear sight, our natural ability to focus, prioritize and assign value kicks in and easily let the irrelevant fall away. With practice you will learn to be ruthless in determining if the incoming information flow is supporting your intentions and ejecting that which doesn't.

Once you have some sort of filter in place, you can then identify those sources where the signal-to-noise ratio is unduly high. The STN ratio is a measure of how much usefulness or relevant information is received from a source in comparison to how much useless or irrelevant information is presented by that same source. A new show that only has 1 story out of several hundreds that supports my intentions has a very low STN. Conversely, a blog that posts infrequently but routinely has excellent information relevant to my intentions, has a high STN.

So the next step is to Limit Information Sources. Prune away those sources where the STN is too low. If you can't remove it completely, find a way to consign it to less impactful or interruptive times during your day. Ideally, only review those sources during your down or idle time.

Adjusting the information by limited sources is easier when you Define Touchpoints. Set aside different areas and tools for doing work that are different from the areas and tools where you interact with others. For example, I use a separate computer for IM, personal email, and social networking then my work computer. When I'm on one device, I create different accounts and workspaces to keep things separate. Set a work schedule and stick to it. If people know when you arrive and leave work, the times of day you respond to email or IM messages and so forth, you'll have a better chance of them respecting your work times.

Lastly, Forget Useless Information Quickly. No matter what you do, the flow of information will continue and you will be presented with too much information that is vying for your attention. So learn to ask some questions of each new piece of information and if it doesn't meet your criteria, dump it. This is one of those behaviors you will have to practice to become ruthless and deliberate about, but the rewards are significant.

An interviewer once asked Albert Einstein why he didn't know his own phone number. Einstein replied "Because I don't use it." How much information are you carrying that you don't use? Much of the information we keep only has limited time value anyway. By the time we need it, the information will have changed or been outdated. So ask yourself:
  • Do I really need the information? If it doesn't support your intentions, get rid of it.
  • Is this information I can get somewhere else? If there are other ways to acquire it when needed, forget it right away.
  • Is this information time-sensitive ? If it will be obsolete before you'll be able to use it, dump it.

In the next series of posts, we'll talk about the other derivative issues that arise from the increasing speed of technological advancement. As always your comments are coveted.