Today’s workers are in the midst of an information overload epidemic. How bad? Columbia Business School professor Sheena Iyengar, an expert on choice, estimates that the average knowledge worker must process, consciously or subconsciously, the equivalent of 174 newspapers of information every day.
“If you think about today’s world, we have more choices and more information than was ever imaginable,” Iyengar says. This is especially true in the workplace, where the flood of daily requests can derail even the most focused employees.
“The cost of choice and information overload is that people get distracted, make more errors due to multitasking, and are less good at engaging in creative problem-solving,” she says. As a result, employees accomplish less, and strategic priorities take a backseat to small, attention-grabbing tasks.
So how can you effectively manage the demands on your attention and time? Building on her popular TED talk about choice, Iyengar shares five strategies to navigate information overload in the workplace.
1. Be choosy about choosing
According to Iyengar, knowledge workers who manage their time well regularly ask themselves, “Is this worth my time, or is this something I should be delegating?”
With so many emails to respond to, meetings to attend, projects to participate in and tasks to complete, knowledge workers have to become the gatekeepers of their own time and attention. Without being choosy in this way, knowledge workers are less likely to be proactive where their attention is needed most. “Instead of actually addressing their priorities, they end up putting out fires. They’re being more reactive to what’s coming at them on a minute-by-minute, day-to-day basis,” Iyengar says.
When you’re selective, you can get rid of what’s less important and delegate or outsource tasks that don’t align with your strengths and interests. By taking those items off your to-do list, you can devote more time and brainpower to activities that add value.
2. Identify three to five priorities
The human brain can remember around seven things—give or take—at any one time, according to Iyengar. And if you have to keep looking at your to-do list, that’s a problem. She recommends narrowing down your priorities to the top three to five things that matter most to you, since even seven can be a stretch.
Once you’ve got your list, Iyengar recommends going one step further to home in on exactly what you need to do to accomplish each one. To avoid information overload, she suggests asking yourself three questions:
- What’s the problem I’m trying to solve?
- How do I break down this problem?
- What information do I need to figure out the best solution?
By getting very specific about what you’re looking for and why, you can proactively approach information, rather than reacting to everything available.
3. Understand the importance
Not all tasks and decisions are equal. For instance, deciding what to have for breakfast merits less time and research than, say, deciding whether to accept a new job offer.
Knowing where a decision or choice falls on the hierarchy of importance can help you assess how much time to invest in it. Sometimes you may need to “choose nothing less than the very best,” Iyengar says, and other times the ideal action is to “simply stop because it’s good enough for this decision.”
By identifying which choices are worth extensive time and research and which aren’t, you free yourself up to make effective decisions when it counts.
4. Put a time limit on information gathering
Without setting parameters on time, knowledge workers can get sucked into information and choice overload. As Iyengar notes, the abundance of information can be addictive and seductive.
To avoid unproductive rabbit holes, Iyengar recommends putting a time limit on information gathering. “Gone are the days where you just said, ‘Hey, let me just explore and see where I go,’ ” she says, “because two hours will pass and you’re going to realize you’ve gotten nothing done.”
How you use your allotted time can vary; what’s key is being strategic about it. “For some of us, you might decide that it’s more important that you spend one or two hours exploring lots of different things—that’s your time to really add creatively to your knowledge base,” she says. “For others, it may be a time to create focus and only search on that topic during the allotted time.”
5. Schedule related tasks together
Once you’ve identified your top priorities and the information you need, Iyengar says, the key to improving productivity is to work on related tasks in regular intervals. By scheduling like tasks next to each other in 30-minute blocks, you’re less likely to get stuck in a mental rut or bogged down by information overload, she says.
Moving between unrelated tasks, on the other hand, creates a cognitive burden that can inhibit productivity. Iyengar understands that sometimes switching between different tasks is unavoidable, but acknowledging the mental cost of the transition can help. “When you’re going to start a new task—let’s say you need to learn a new app or you need to upload some new file in a new way—build in the fact that there’s going to be a startup cost so that you’re not frustrated,” she says. “Because once people get frustrated, they actually lose a lot of energy through their frustration.”
The power of choice
While information overload can make daily decisions challenging, Iyengar reframes our ability to choose as a powerful tool. By helping us determine what’s useful and relevant, choice frees us up to invent and create. “We can use choice to construct those most meaningful combinations of our lives,” she says. “I think that’s when you get the real power of choice.”
The true value of choice is not standing in front of a vending machine and making a selection, she says. Rather, it’s saying, “Look, I’ve got this problem. How can I now imagine a solution and implement it in a way that actually makes a difference?”