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Dealing with information overload Dealing with information overload
by Joseph Gatt
2021-01-31 11:07:36
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We all have our ways to deal with information. President Eisenhower used to rank files by order of priority, starting with the most urgent, and leaving the less urgent documents at the bottom of the pile. That way, he was sure to read the important stuff, and the not-so-important stuff would only be read if he had time.

The way I deal with information is as follows.

I separate information in three categories:

-Good for conversation and the water cooler

infor0001_400-Good for professional reasons

-Good for academic/intellectual reasons.

I make these distinctions because I know a lot of people who, for example, focus all their time and energy on water-cooler information, and forget to read professional information or academic information.

I also know people who focus all their reading energy on professional stuff. And those who focus all their energy on academic stuff.

Water-cooler information is important and should not be neglected. You need to dedicate a little bit of time every day to checking Facebook and Twitter feeds (which are essentially water-cooler information). And you need to keep yourself updated with the gossip and out-of-the-ordinary information of the moment. And with the big news related to entertainment and politics.

Why? Because, a lot of times, water-cooler conversation is not about work, but about “light” topics. Why? Because, I don't mind discussing professional stuff with my colleagues. But if there's an intruder (or several intruders) I have to shift the conversation to water-cooler topics.

So you have those guys and girls who focus so much on professional information, that when they end up at the water-cooler, they can't talk about anything if there's an intruder. Or they will force the conversation into professional conversation, only to get thrown back to water-cooler topics.

Professional information is also vital. I know more than a dozen people who had to quit their jobs either because they did not know how to get the job done, or because they were clueless when it comes to vital professional information.

Now you have the Japanese and Korean method, very bad methods, that go like this. The boss is a supervisor and does no work. The boss surfs online all day and reads all the necessary water-cooler pages (or gambles online). And the boss lets the subordinate deal with professional information all by himself or herself.

The problem with professional information is that some of it is available in books. Some of it is available in the press. Some of it is available on YouTube videos. But a lot of the professional information is also very specific to the company one attends.

So ideally, employees should read a little bit of books related to professional development, but also need to catch up with their colleagues on information related to the company. Too many blunders have been made and billions of dollars have been lost because the boss did not share information with his subordinate (or a colleague with a colleague).

Professional information also means catching up with projects and checking the progress of projects. I know too many people who design a project on an MS Word file, hand the file to the project manager, and never check with the progress of the project.

Let me give you a real example of how this could go wrong. A project manager received a contract for a very large ship to be built by a contractor. The project manager gave the project to someone else, never checked with the progress. It turned out the ship did not match the norms specified in the contract when it was built, and the company lost 10 million dollars building the ship, when the contractor cancelled the deal because the norms were incorrect.

Academic information. Also vital. You can't browse Facebook and Twitter all day. Nor can you focus too much on professional information.

Academic information will often help you understand your job better, and how the world works better.

More importantly, the huge clients you will encounter in life sometimes won't be too keen on discussing entertainment and electoral politics, and will want to discuss more refined academic topics.

What I hear people say a lot is “but if I only read one book what difference does it make when I meet people who have read hundreds of books?”

The general idea with academic information is the more you know the better. Knowing a little bit is good. A little more than a little bit is better. The more you know the better.

As for those big clients who want to discuss academic stuff, they will usually adjust their knowledge of academia to something you can grasp.

How do you deal with information overload?

Simply by being conscious of the information you need.

Take a look at the last 10 years of your life. What were the water-cooler conversations about? What were the professional conversations about? And what were the academic conversations about?

Building on that, and on current necessities, you'll know more or less the kind of information you will need.

The idea is not to neglect one type of information over the other. If you don't catch up with music or movie trends, there are going to be a few awkward conversations. If you don't catch up with professional trends, that will make your job difficult. And if you don't catch up with academic trends, you are going to encounter one of those moments where you could have impressed a billionaire potential client but failed.

When is the good time to catch up with information?

Time is indeed the enemy of information. You only have a limited amount of time to consume information.

I would say do the following:

-Scroll your Facebook and Twitter feeds three or four times a day. No more.

-Pick one single newspaper and read that one. No more than one newspaper, but read it thoroughly. If possible, read the paper version rather than the online version. If the newspaper starts annoying you, subscribe to a newspaper that does not annoy you.  

-Dedicate some time to academic topics or academic books or academic magazines. Could be science. Could be philosophy. Could be religion. Could be social topics. Could be political topics.

Picture this: if you read a dozen academic books a year, you'll have read 120 academic books in the last ten years. 120 books is a lot of solid knowledge.

Final question I get a lot: should I sometimes disconnect from information?

I'd say check social media 3-4 times a day, every day, because something big (or small) could happen any time. Read the paper, daily.

I personally don't watch any News network or News shows because, to tell you bluntly, they tend to be a bit too provocative for my taste. So the only News I watch is election nights, and there's this one Algerian news bulletin that is vital to me and that I watch every day because I currently reside in Algeria. And that's it.

As for academic information, you want to start small and save the bigger stuff for later. Start with books no more than 100 pages. Once you've read enough 100 page books, you can move to 200, 300 or 1,000 page books.

Don't pick a thick book and start with that. Start with the small stuff, until the bigger stuff becomes more natural.

Because if you start by trying to read 1,000 page-long books, you won't finish them, and that will discourage you from reading about academic topics.

Good luck! And don't forget to go out, enjoy nature, party, go out for a walk, ride a bike, play some kind of sport, and enjoy life in general! That's important as well!

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