@#!: Managing Information Overload

You must have heard of Susan Boyle and her competition, 12-year-old Shaheen Jafargholi. I bet you also followed the twattle (did you ask if that meant ‘twitter battle’?) between CNN and Ashton Kutcher. You knew when Barack got a book gift from Hugo Chavez and you’re probably sure you know South Africa’s next president. I won’t be surprised if you also know the exact number of friends you have! We clearly live in interesting times, and no one can deny the fact that we are exposed to much more information that at any other time in history. That’s right, it’s why we refer to it as the Information Age. And if you found out that you had actually set up an account while trying to sign up for a new web service, you are not alone. Welcome to the club! In fact, when you log out on your desktop at work, you work the blackberry on your way to the car park and the laptop is waiting for your rushing hands (and roaming fingers) at home.

The question on most minds today is how anyone can get any work done with all the information that is directed at you. Even if you move away from the internet, news channels on TV welcome you with open arms. And to make it worse, your mentor asked if you had read the new book! While information can be very empowering, it can also grind your walk to a halt if you don’t manage the overload properly. Imagine what would happen if you spent time with your eMail, did some little FaceBooking, responded to the LinkedIn messages, caught up on your favourite blogs, scrolled through online newspapers, gave a few minutes to Twitter, did some twittering from your brain (seriously, see http://is.gd/u7rx)… and you wonder why the day rolls by so fast these days? No thanks to the mobile phone that won’t even stay silent — and you can’t leave it behind because it has all your appointments listed.

On-the-job productivity does not have to go down while your information intake goes up. How to manage the overload is what I hope to share in as few paragraphs as possible (so I don’t add too much more to the information you have to process today). So, let’s get to the 6 tips that keep me — and many others — ahead of the looming overload.

  1. Push and Pull Deliberately
    If you don’t deliberately push and pull the information that you want, you’re waiting to be flooded. Push information by adding content to the web too, and pull information from carefully selected sources. What takes most time is when you follow hyperlinks in an unorganized way. For example, I choose my news updates from specific alerts, eMails, blogs and websites — and I make sure I limit the number of secondary links I follow. What I’ve also learnt from pushing information out is that people direct you to more specific sources when they notice what your focus is. More on focus later.
  2. Create a Funnel
    Note that noise is different from information, so create a funnel to help you seperate the chaff from the wheat. You may choose to indulge yourself when you’re ahead on your schedule, but ensure that you take advantage of subscription services provided by your carefully selected websites and blogs. You can also create alerts using such services as Google Alerts or set up TweetDeck which allows you have a quick scroll-through of Twitter/FaceBook updates on a single page (and you can now post to both services from TweetDeck on your desktop.) Personally, I use NaijaPulse as my primary update channel — and it’s linked to my Twitter page, which then broadcasts updates to FaceBook, this blog (see the right sidebar) and my website (see left frame).
  3. What’s Your Online Agenda?
    If there’s a central secret to managing information overload, this must be it! Your online agenda cannot be divorced from your life’s agenda, so it helps to know what exactly you’re doing on earth so you can define better what you’ll be doing on the web. Does that mean you’ll be tied to that space? No, but it help you know when you get lost. Imagine a football match on a field without goal posts. Remember the time you had a deadline and wanted to squeeze 5 minutes of FaceBook time in but you ended up with a not-so-nice presentation. “Why can’t anyone just understand how busy I am, jeez!” Really?
  4. Control Search Results
    Because information travels so fast these days, you also need to be sure that what the world reads about you is close to your best foot forward. If you’ve never Googled your name, you should probably take a break to do that now. Have you? Welcome back. And for those who do it everyday, isn’t that a bit too much? 🙂 Many people have found out that the information that search results throw up about them are scary. While you obviously can’t dictate what is thrown up each time your name is Googled, you can at least have a say. How about a personal website or blog with your own name? That is always a winner with search engines, and it’ll at least show the world your preferred information before they see the unguarded statement you made while in elementary school. By the way, the rule of the web is: “If you don’t want it showing up everywhere, don’t put it anywhere online – eMail, blog, website, comment on another blog, anywhere”. It also helps if you set up profiles on Google, MySpace, Wikipedia, YouTube, LinkedIn, FaceBook, Tweeter, NaijaPulse, Xing, etc, even if you’ll never use them. They are very dear to the heart of search engines, trust me. Proof? Search for ‘Gbenga Sesan in any search engine.
  5. Give Time to New Knowledge
    While I agree that there’s no time, I also think it’s important that you create time to catch up with new knowledge. How much we pay for a service is clearly proportional to our level of ignorance in that subject area. I can’t forget how much some friends paid to open hotmail or yahoo accounts in 1999! You can use technology (or innovation) sections of popular global magazines or newspapers — or set up an alert for technology or innovation.
  6. The Pipe will be Flooded
    I’m already taking so much of your time, so let me bring this to a close. Warning: more projects are underway, so get ready. We all got caught up in the FaceBook frenzy and almost all your friends are now on Twitter (which means you’ll soon get an account). Trust me, many labs across the world are coming up with services that will soon call for your attention. Don’t say I didn’t tell you when you get close to spending all morning on various websites and then wonder why everyone’s going on lunch break when you’re yet to tick off the first to do item of the day.

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