One of the greatest ironies of our times is that despite the unprecedented accessibility that we enjoy to information, we remember less things, ponder and reflect less frequently, and get “brain-fogged”, confused, and stressed out much more easily.
If you think about it, it’s an interesting paradox. Why make the effort to remember or memorise something you can just access at the touch of a button? Likewise, with so much information to discover every day, who has time for mental deep-dives anymore?
This, however, is exactly where the problem lies. The vast majority of us are so inundated with information every day that we no longer recognise the adverse effects it can have on the way our minds work.
Nicholas Carr, for one, in his bestseller on “What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains”, posits that all this information overload has resulted in us failing to truly realise the full potential of the human intellect. According to Carr, it erodes “mindful knowledge acquisition, creative thinking, reflective thinking, and critical thinking,” all of which are critical variables in the equation of workplace success.
It’s therefore imperative not just to acknowledge how our thinking patterns have changed as a result of information overload, but to work actively towards reclaiming our full intellectual capacities towards greater workplace success. Here are four tips on how to do just that.
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Perhaps most surprisingly, the most important to realise when it comes to managing information overload is this: you don’t have to keep everything in your head. According to choice expert Sheena Iyengar, the human mind can only remember (at most) seven things at any one time. The more “memory slots” you use up unnecessarily, the more you’re deliberately shortchanging yourself.
Most of us tend to use those slots up trying to remember and keep track of every last item on our daily, weekly, and monthly task lists. Being constant multitaskers and expert jugglers then leaves us perpetually stressed while also reducing our productivity and performance.
For that reason, David Allen’s “The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” is a virtual god-send. Allen states that it’s necessary to ensure that you have an accessible personal system in place to keep track of every ongoing and future project you have at work and in life.
Consequently, when you don’t keep anything in your head, you feel less stressed and more in control of your tasks and by extension, of your life.
For knowledge workers, at any given time, there will always be what feels like thirty different things requiring your attention at work. Most of them probably require you to gather a certain amount of information before you can consider a proper course of action.
This, in and of itself, isn’t the problem; researching and accumulating information is an inevitable and necessary element of any effective work process. Yet it’s our approach to this part of how we do our work that often mentally overburdens us.
So often, we fail to take a strategic approach to information-gathering; going by what grabs our attention in the moment rather than looking methodically at what our top priorities are. According to Iyengar, just identifying your top three to five priorities and determining exactly what information you need and how you’re going to get it, can go a long way in simplifying things for you.
For managers in particular, one of the most greatest sources of information overload is a failure to delegate both tasks and authority to others. For one thing, letting yourself be bogged down by tasks that your people can take over ends up crowding up your mental space unnecessarily in the long run, even if these are tasks you might enjoy more than others.
Worse, hoarding authority instead of delegating it to others often results in constant interruptions from your people, who either need your approval to go ahead with a particular task, or keep depending on you to spoon-feed them with the solutions to the various problems they encounter.
The solutions, in this case, are straightforward:
The greater the burden of information on your mind, the weaker your mental clarity, and the less effective you’ll be at problem-solving, innovation, and even coaching and mentoring your people.
As a recent Harvard Business Review article suggests, the busier you are, the more quiet time you need. It’s therefore imperative for managers especially, to schedule in time every day for distraction-free, uninterrupted deep focus.
Not only will it help you sort through and mentally organise the maelstrom of information jostling for your attention in your head, it’s been scientifically proven to improve creativity and productivity as well.