We've all done it -- half-glanced at an e-mail, deemed it unimportant, deleted it, and moved on. Then some time later, the other half we didn't read comes back to bite us in some way.
But with information overload flooding our lives at every turn, what can we do? It's not easy to change ADD-inspired ways, but time management expert Michele Vivona of LexisNexis has plenty of helpful answers.
Q. How can you tell you've reached your breaking point with information overload?
A. In our LexisNexis 2010 Workplace Productivity Survey, we define the breaking point as the moment when professionals are no longer able to handle the ever-increasing amounts of information at work, including e-mail, documents, research, news, etc. Of course everyone has a different threshold, but some tell-tale signs you've reached your "information breaking point" include:
- When you spend more time receiving and managing information at work vs. actually using the information to do your job.
For example, the survey shows that on average, white collar professionals report spending over half (51 percent) of their workday receiving and managing information, rather than actually using information to do their jobs. For U.S. professionals, this is an almost 10 percent increase since 2008.
- When you sift through increasing amounts of irrelevant information to get to the information you need to do your job.
Professionals in each market we surveyed report that between one-third and one-half of the information they receive at work each day is not important to getting their job done.
- When the rising tide of information prevents you from getting your job done effectively.
For example, the professionals in each country we surveyed report that, at least once a week, they deliver incomplete documents, e-mail or other communications because the necessary information or materials could not be found on time; experience trouble re-creating how time was spent for billing purposes; need to re-create a document because a previously-created version could not be found; miss deadlines because of trouble finding necessary information; and miss a meeting or appointment because of scheduling miscommunications.
Q. What if you are required by your employer to be on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, phone texting, news apps, etc., etc.?
A. In our digital age, many workers are expected to be plugged in 24/7. However, on average, two in three (65 percent) professionals say the constant flow of e-mail and other information is distracting, making it difficult to focus on the task at hand. Everyone's job demands are different, but it's important to work with your employer to set up a standard for response-time expectations as well as how tasks should be prioritized. Employers should also regularly work to update their information management systems so that their employees have access to fast, up-to-date technology.
Q. What's the best way for a person to deal with e-mail? (separate folders, prioritizing, simply answering each one as they come in so they don't pile up...?)
A. The first step in managing your inbox is using software that's tailored for the way you think and work, as not everyone organizes information the same way. Additionally, you need to set some rules and boundaries for yourself – maybe have less-important e-mails automatically filter into a folder and allow yourself a specific time each day to review that folder.
I personally try and set aside time at the beginning of each day (with my iPad) to respond to high-priority issues, and at the end of the day to get to the lower priority issues on e-mail. I take advantage of creating specific folders for each subject and never keeping a full inbox. If I need to remember a deadline or follow up on a project, I'll set alerts. Additionally, whenever I receive an updated response from a conversation train, I delete the old correspondence in order to keep the overall volume down. I've found that this organization allows me to quickly and easily find old e-mails/documents.
Q. What piqued your own interest in this subject?
A. Increasing workplace productivity is at the heart of LexisNexis – we are a leading global provider of workflow solutions. It is our job to understand the challenges faced by the professionals who use our services, so that we can develop solutions and services that are tailored to meet their needs, and help them overcome the challenges they encounter at work. This survey is just part of that ongoing effort to better understand and collaborate with our clients.
Information overload will only continue to negatively impact employee productivity if firms choose to ignore the issue. The heavy toll on employee morale and productivity will eventually come to bear on the bottom line. Currently, a majority of workers in every market (62 percent, on average) admit that the quality of their work suffers at times because they can't sort through the information they need fast enough. Moreover, approximately one in two (52 percent) white collar professionals report feeling demoralized when they can't manage all the information that comes their way at work. Ultimately, the resulting problems for firms could range anywhere from lost productivity and profits to lost talent.
Q. What's the one best piece of advice you can give to someone suffering from information overload?
A. Ask your employer for help. There are resources, technology and software out there that are designed to work the way you work and can help you better manage all the information that comes your way. According to our survey, in each country, more than eight in 10 workers say their employer has taken at least one action to help them manage information efficiently, such as investing in technology, offering training and establishing "e-mail-free" times. This needs to become common practice across the board.
A good example of what's possible in workplace technology and organizational tools is the long term "New Lexis" initiative we at LexisNexis have embarked on to reinvent our products and services in close collaboration with our customers to better meet their needs. Results of this initiative include Lexis Advance for Solos, Lexis for Microsoft Office, and InterAction 6.0 for Microsoft Outlook to name a few – all helping to improve productivity, offer instant access to needed information and tools wherever and however they work, and integrate content and productivity tools across the business and practice of law.
While software can help you get organized, it's really up to you how to best process the information. If you find yourself skimming certain e-mails, don't be so quick to hit the delete button. Tempting as it is to clear everything out and move forward, try creating a 24-hour holding folder and read those e-mails one more time before trashing them. You never know: The note sent from a potential employer saying thanks but no thanks to your resume, might just be ending with an offer for a different job.