How many times have you been interrupted today?
I’ve had Skype messages, urgent emails, people stopping by my desk, phone calls, and then I’ve been interrupting myself as well as I’ve been procrastinating on a task and went to get a cup of tea.
OK, so that last interruption wasn’t a source of information overload, but it is certainly a symptom. When we feel overwhelmed, it’s easy to feel paralysed. You don’t know where to start, so you risk doing nothing while you try to process what’s important and where your focus really needs to be.
We all have to deal with these situations, and being able to cope with information overload is a key skill for leaders. In fact, it has been called out as one of the top 10 adaptive leadership trends for the year. Having the skills to be able to deal with the constant flow of information will set you aside from other leaders, and help manage your mental wellbeing too.
But how do you actually do it? In my experience, there are three ways to manage information overload: having the right mindset, having the right tools and having the right training.
Overload Buster #1: Mindset
It’s crucial to have the right attitude when dealing with the amount of information we process as project leaders. There’s constantly something going on with the team. From the ping of incoming emails, to the conversations in corridors that fundamentally change where your project needs to be headed, project managers have to be on alert for the nugget of information that means the world to your outcomes.
On top of that, we’re reading the mood of the team, monitoring morale, horizon-spotting for upcoming conflict and dealing with all the other bits of information that aren’t said out loud.
That’s a lot for any brain.
Practise sifting through information – you probably do this daily without even thinking about it. A positive mindset to have for dealing with all this data centres around being able to assimilate information and then analyse what’s in front of you. You’re looking for trends, for outliers.
As a project leader, this means taking a step back. When there’s this much going on, you have to trust your team to do their best work. Use your time wisely, taking a helicopter view of what is going on and making sure you dive down when you need to.
Ultimately, try to put yourself in a position of self-awareness, so that you know when overload is happening to you. The more self-aware you can be, the easier it is to spot when it is likely to happen – the days leading up to a board paper deadline, or a big presentation, when you are trying to get a lot of important work finished and won’t be able to deal well with interruptions, for example.
Then you can think through how best to tackle those situations. Perhaps you work best in the mornings, so do your focused work then and push your other tasks to the afternoon. Book a meeting with yourself in your diary so that you have a block of time to get on with your work. Learn about your working style and your productivity habits so that you can flex around what works best for you.
Overload Buster #2: Tools
The right tools will help you manage the information so that you feel less overwhelmed with it all. For example:
- Set up email rules so that incoming messages are automatically moved into the right folders. Then you can look at them en masse.
- Turn off the desktop pop ups that alert you to new Skype messages or mails.
- Use a single sign on password management tool so at least numerous passwords aren’t part of your information overload.
- Set up your knowledge sharing and collaboration tools with adequate categories, Slack channels or tags so that you can sift through the information that is relevant.
If you don’t know how to use the tools, get someone to sit with you while you learn them. Not knowing how to use a piece of software is a huge stressor for me, and I find I get very frustrated with the time wasted. Plan in your learning time to save yourself a lot of headaches in the future.
Your mindset comes into play with tools too. Do you really have to read every message your team shares in your collaboration software? There’s knowing what is going on and then there’s micromanagement. If you trust your people, you should be able to switch off notifications for some of the conversations and let them get on with it.
Overload Buster #3: Training
We aren’t born knowing how to sift through reams of data. Many of us pick it up through necessity, but don’t underestimate how a bit of training can transform the way you approach your day.
I can speak from firsthand experience, here. Having recently worked with a coach on my own time management, I have set up a weekly planning habit that I can honestly say has transformed my life. I’ve only been doing it for about 5 weeks so far, but plotting out what I need to achieve each week, and then what commitments I have each day, has been revolutionary for helping me stay focused and get through what needs to be done.
You don’t need a coach to make improvements; there are many off-the-shelf courses you can attend on time management, decision-making and critical thinking. You could invest in an expert-led course, take a short course online or take part in training your employer offers. Whatever you choose will give you more skills for managing information overload and show you practical tactics for better managing your time.
We aren’t going to stop being interrupted. We aren’t going to switch off the flow of information to our inboxes and collaboration tools. What we need are practical solutions for managing that so you can feel that you are on top of the overwhelm.
Different strategies are going to work for different people. While you might find it helpful to have an app on your phone that keeps you working and connected while travelling, your colleague might prefer to use that commute time for reading briefing documentation (or simply looking out the window, which is a fine choice for your time too!).
Try different approaches. Try different tools. Be conscious of the fact overwhelm is happening to you and think about the root causes. The more open you are to watching out for overwhelm, the more likely you are to be able to deal with it. Let us know how you get on and what works best for you. Tweet us @2080StrategyEx with your tips for managing information overload!