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Information Overload

By Kathy Paauw

"One of the effects of living with electronic information is that we live habitually in a state of information overload. There's always more than you can cope with."

-Marshall McLuhan

Surveys show that people's stress levels are at an all-time high, and a major source of that stress is information overload. How are you managing the barrage of information you receive daily?

Over the past twenty years, technology and downsizing have joined forces to turn office space into a dumping ground for information. Computer manufacturers promised us paperless offices back in the 1980s, and yet a decade later paper production had doubled!

Information comes to us in four primary ways:

  • Paper

  • Electronic (e-mail, web links, etc.)

  • Spoken (in person or recorded messages)

  • Thoughts in your head

What typically happens when you sit down at your desk and are overwhelmed with where to begin?

You could start with your e-mail or perhaps with the verbal message your assistant gave you on your way to the office. But then"how about that overflowing "In Box" you haven't looked at for days? Or what about getting started on the brilliant idea you had on your way into work this morning?

How can you possibly figure out what is most important to focus on right now? Having clarity about your priorities is critical as you wade through the maze of choices that compete for your time.

The Four D's

There are only 4 possible choices for what to do with information. I call it the Four D's:

  • Do it now.

  • Defer it for later - file it for action or future reference.

  • Delegate it to someone else.

  • Dump / delete -- don't do it.

Let's look at each option more closely:


Ask yourself: "Is this the BEST use of my time right now?" When you do weekly planning, you can plan ahead and block out time to tend to your most important activities. (Yes, that's can make an appointment with yourself to focus on your most important activities or tasks!)


If you have papers you need to take action on at some point in the future, use a tickler file to help you remember to follow up at the appropriate time. Visit to see a picture of a good customized tickler system. If the follow-up is an activity, such as a follow-up phone call a month from now, enter a reminder in your calendar so you don't forget.


If you are not delegating some of your work, I encourage you to revisit the possibilities. The most productive people in the world are those who spend 80% of their time doing what they do best and love most, while surrounding themselves with people whose talents are complimentary to theirs.

Even if you don't have the money to delegate tasks to others by hiring help, you may be able to trade services with others.

If you are a small business owner, you probably wear many hats"and some of those hats may not fit very well. Let's say that you are a great writer, but you really struggle with graphic design and layout. At a recent networking event you overheard a graphic designer say that he wanted to put out a quarterly newsletter but he was not a very good writer. Perhaps you could barter with him for your ongoing graphic needs in exchange for ghostwriting his quarterly newsletters.

A number of my small business owner clients - often cash-poor when in the start-up phase -- have found ways to delegate tasks they were either not good at or did not enjoy, in trade for something that they love doing.

Think outside the box. Identify what you would delegate if you could, and then figure out some creative ways to make it happen!


There's productive power in asking yourself these questions:

  • What's the worst possible thing that could happen if I don't have this or don't do this?

  • If I toss this now and discover I need it later, can I get it elsewhere?

  • Does it have tax or legal implications?

  • Will this enhance my life to do or keep?

How often do you complete everything on your "to-do list? (I call those "do-do lists - we do this and do that.) I have been invited into many offices as a productivity consultant, and I can tell you that most busy people have multiple do-do lists stashed throughout their offices, cars, briefcases, and homes, in an attempt to try to remember everything.

But how often do you stop to examine if what you're doing is really the most important thing you can be focused on at the moment? As Stephen Covey, author of First Things First, says: "What does it matter how much we do if what we're doing isn't what matters most."

When you have multiple tasks and to-do lists competing for your time, it can be stressful and difficult to focus on any one activity. Imagine driving through a construction zone on a busy street, where all lanes of traffic must merge together into one lane. The merge can be stressful due to the simultaneous activities requiring attention all around you. But once you've transitioned into a single lane of traffic without colliding with another car or hitting a construction cone, stress goes down and confidence goes up.

In the Seattle area, where I live, road construction is going on everywhere. But by the time construction is completed, capacity has already outgrown the new infrastructure and additional cars quickly fill the new lanes. We're back to gridlock by the time the paint is dry! I see some parallels between adding lanes to a highway and creating new paths for transmitting information. Even though we're already bombarded with too much information, we continue to create more every day! Since it's not going away, we've all got to learn to manage information overload. The key to managing overload is to clarify your primary goals and then focus on a few top goals you most want to accomplish in the coming year.

Regardless of what form your information takes - paper, electronic, verbal communications, or an idea in your head - establishing your priorities is the key to working most productively. Without prioritizing information, ideas, and opportunities as they come in, you are at risk for either doing something that is less important while something more important is neglected, or you are at risk of forgetting to handle an important task before the deadline passes.

Copyright 2005 Kathy Paauw

About The Author
Kathy Paauw

Wouldn't you love to stumble upon a secret library of ideas to help you de-clutter your life so you can focus on what's most important? Kathy Paauw offers simple, yet powerful ideas, on how to manage your time, space, and thoughts for a more productive and fulfilling life. Visit

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