Information Overload

Beat Information Overload 1 Pile at a Time

Friday, February 12, 2016

We all have them, on our desks, counters, or kitchen tables. Piles—of mail, reports, survey forms, seminar announcements, catalogs. A basic step in managing information overload is to confront these piles head on with a take-no-prisoners attitude.

Beware of Killer Piles

Piles tend to represent complexity and unfinished business. Each pile that you encounter registers in your brain, if only for a second, as more stuff that you haven't dealt with. Fortunately, there are ways to handle the piles that materialize.

  • Dismantle the Piles. You’ll need a pen, file folders, paper clips, rubber bands, and a stapler. Now collect everything that needs attention. Stack all of it in front of you in a temporary pile. 
  • Categorize Each Item.  Allocate each item to one of four locations: an important pile, an urgent pile, an interesting pile, or the recycling bin, where most items will go. Classify it to the best of your knowledge. If an item is urgent and important, for instance, place it in the important pile near the top. If you are unsure about an item, place it at the bottom of the temporary stack, but only do so once for each item. On the second encounter, you have to classify it.
  • Prioritize. In 30 minutes or less, the big pile should be gone, and you should be left with three smaller, semi-neat piles. Rank the items and then rearrange them in each pile. Toss anything you can. You should now have three more precisely arranged piles, now housed in file folders: important, urgent, and interesting.
  • Get Meaner and Leaner. What else can you throw away? What can be combined, ignored, delayed, delegated, done in multiples, automated, or systemized? The more items you can downgrade to interesting, the further ahead you'll be because you can deal with these items when you feel like it.
  • Address Urgent and Important Items. Address the items in the urgent and important piles one by one. After you've identified the most important project or task, begin working on it. If you can't complete it, take it as far as you can, then place it back in the folder, either on top or where you think it now belongs. Similarly, begin the next most important item and complete as much of it as you can.

Continually Reduce Volume

Strive to retain only the bare minimum of necessary information. For example, rather than keeping a five-page report, retain only the pages that you need. Or rather than retaining an entire page, cut out the information that you need and recycle the rest of the page. Tape the small clipping or subsection you've retained to a single page, perhaps one that contains other relevant clippings.

Here are some additional tips:

  • Re-examine everything in each pile once again. Even after you've pared down a particular pile to a smaller, more concise one, review it while thinking, "What am I keeping that has little to no value?"
  • When you've pared down your piles to the lowest possible volume, keep like items together using a stapler, paper clip, or rubber band. In general, the more like items you can fasten together, the easier it will be for you to find a particular item that you need!

That mountain of paper is your Everest. Use these tips to tackle it today for a much-needed boost in your productivity.

About the Author
Jeff Davidson, MBA, CMC (aka "The Work-life Balance Expert"®) offers keynote presentations and workshops on a creating work-life balance, managing the pace with grace, and thriving in a hyper-accelerated world. He has spoken to Fortune 50 companies, such as Lockheed and IBM, as well as American Express, Westinghouse, America Online, and Wells Fargo. Jeff also is the author of Simpler Living, Breathing Space, and Dial it Down, Live it Up. His books have been published in 19 languages including Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Malay, Turkish, and Russian. For more information visit
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