Managing Information Overload

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By Gabrielle Euvino

When Johannes Gutenberg came up with the movable type printing press back in 1450, he probably didn't know that he had also given birth to either the greatest blessing or the greatest curse of modern times, as J. M. Barrie would write in 1896. In today's world, it comes at us from all directions, permeating the air we breathe with its invisible signals, bombarding our ears with its incessant chatter, filling our minds with an endless stream of data—information overload.

It's not just newspapers and magazines, but e-zines, newsgroups, and infomercials, promising the reader the latest reports, the hottest gossip, the exclusive story. You open your mail and there are the usual bills, but added to the heap are unsolicited credit card applications, book club invitations, recipe cards, stock portfolios, coupon books. The papers pile up in the corner, the bills accumulate in the basket, the rest is thrown into the kitchen drawer for a rainy day.

The onslaught of information doesn't stop there: Your beeper goes off, the telephone rings, your e-mails beg response. To relax, you turn on the television and find a zillion channels to choose from, but somehow there is still nothing on. Not to mention movies, videos, and countless Web sites (this one included) vying for your attention. And the machine just keeps growing.

Never before in mankind's history have we had this much information coming at us from so many different places. A recent poll in Time magazine (5/29/00) found that 58 percent of the population feels the glut, and it isn't going to get any better.

Be Selective    to top

In As a Man Thinketh, the philosopher James Allen writes, A man's mind may be likened to a garden which may be intelligently cultivated or allowed to run wild; but whether cultivated or neglected, it must, and will, bring forth.

The wisdom behind his words is simple. Just as you are careful about the food you put into your body, you'll want information that nurtures your mind and soul. Even this article may be stealing precious time away from more important matters (the sunset, your children, a few extra minutes at the gym).

Ask yourself, Do I really need to know this? How will this information improve my life? Decide what is important to you, and prioritize. (After all, do you have to see Rambo 6?)

Get Rid of It!    to top

There is something immensely satisfying about cleaning out the corners of your life. You can begin by throwing out all those catalogues, old magazines, and newspapers sitting next to the bathtub. If you haven't had the time to read an article that is over two months old—unless it's particularly relevant to your job or hobby—get rid of it. With the Internet and libraries, there's no reason to hold onto clutter. If you need to know something, you can look it up.

In Getting out from Under: Redefining Your Priorities in an Overwhelming World, Stephanie Winston (also author of The Organized Executive) suggests that keeping your desk clear of the paper tiger is not about neatness—it's about being selective and making decisions. She has devised a simple system called TRAF to manage paper. T for "toss," R for "refer," A for "act," and F for "file."

As you go through your mail, whenever possible deal with each piece on the spot, avoiding the pileup you know oh-so-well. Throw junk mail in the garbage, place time-sensitive documents (bills, applications, etc.) in a separate pile, important business, personal, and legal documents in a labeled file folder, and refer articles or other information to colleagues and friends. Although not always possible, the less you have to handle a document, the better. Simply paying bills as you open them is another no-brainer that will help ease your load.

You can begin managing your information by canceling any magazine or music/book/recipe club subscriptions that no longer serve your needs. Donate old books and magazines (such as those beautiful National Geographics you've been collecting for ten years) to your local library. At work, if you're on someone's routing list but don't need to receive the information, ask that your name be taken off the list.

In The Complete Idiot's Guide to Organizing Your Life,

Georgene Lockwood mentions that over 68 million trees are chopped down annually for catalogues and direct mail sales pitches (and this does not include magazines and newspapers!). So much for the paperless world we thought the computer would bring.

There's hope, however. With one stone, you can do your part to save the planet and simplify your life. Send your name and address to the Direct Marketing Association's delete file and within a couple of months, you should feel some relief. Write to:

Stop the Mail
Mail Preference Service
Direct Marketing Association
P.O. Box 9008
Farmingdale, NY

Another suggestion: if you want to make sure your credit information is not being used by someone without your permission, call the "Opt Out Request Line" at:

(888) 567-8688

You will be asked to provide your name, address, and Social Security number, and you will be offered the opportunity to have your name taken off—for a two-year period or permanently—the lists used by marketers and telephone solicitors. Otherwise, you can always use your accumulated junk mail as compost.

Create a Filing System    to top

You've probably heard this before, but it's a good thing to keep in mind. By spending just fifteen minutes a day, you can keep your life organized (wow, what a concept!). It starts with a filing system.

Within the next five minutes, would you be able to locate your important documents (vehicle title, VCR warranty, your child's birth certificate)? If not, you're suffering from information overload.

A simple two-drawer metal filing cabinet will do. These days, they're quite attractive, come in a variety of colors, and can be purchased for less than $50. While you're at it, pick up a package of manila file folders.

Create a filing system that is simple and allows you to easily locate the files you'll need. Keep files updated by discarding obsolete materials. General subject headings might include the following:

  • Auto
  • Bank
  • Charities/Donations
  • Coupons/Promotions
  • Credit Cards
  • Electric/Gas
  • Home
  • Insurance
  • Investments
  • Legal Documents (birth certificates/passports, etc.)
  • Loans
  • Medical/Doctor
  • Miscellaneous (for everything that can't be labeled)
  • Pets
  • Schedules/Menus
  • School
  • Travel
  • Warranties and Instructions

Never seem to be able to pay your bills on time? Pick up an Everyday File Sorter from your local stationery store or Staples. Make sure it has thirty-one pages, one for each day of the month. As bills come in, slip them into the folder on the days they should be mailed (not paid, since by then they'll be overdue). Every few days or so, check to see what needs to be paid. Keep stamps and blank envelopes in the back pocket.

Avoid the Post-it Syndrome    to top

You're on the telephone and need to write down a telephone number. You grab a Post-it, scribble, and slap it onto the edge of your computer monitor next to the other Day-Glo sheets. By now, there are so many you could fill a book with all of them. This is poor information management. Instead, try keeping a blank book near your desk for this purpose.

This is a truelife saver. Date each new page and use the book to keep phone numbers, messages, ideas, to-do lists, and general reminders. You might want to use the back pages for book and movie suggestions. Later, you can transfer those numbers into your phone book and mark important dates in your agenda.

Navigating the Internet    to top

You wouldn't be reading this article if you weren't one of the millions surfing the World Wide Web. In such a vast universe, it's easy to veer off course—that's why you need a compass. The savvy surfer knows that it's important to find a few reliable search engines to count on.

How do you weed through it all? Narrow your search by specifying what you want to know. Let's say you're taking a trip to Italy. An on-line search brings up 5,738 sites. Try "Tuscany," and you'll see a significant reduction in the number of finds.

Managing all this information is easily done through the use of bookmarks. If you find something you can use in the future, bookmark it and soon you'll have your own personal library of digital information.

Warning: If you're going to surf, BEWARE OF SHARKS! Be careful of what you download—there are some nasty and clever viruses out there just waiting to pollute your PC with poisonous information.

Choose Your Medium Well    to top

When Marshall McLuhan coined the well-known expression the medium is the message, he was observing the impact of the media on public life. Like it or not, in this new millennium, information management is a must for people of all walks of life. Don't let the media tell you what is important to know—decide for yourself. It's your garden. (You didn't need all those old catalogues anyway!)

References: As a Man Thinketh, James Allen; 101 Ways to Make Every Second Count, Robert Bly; The Complete Idiot's Guide to Managing Time, Jeff Davidson; Manage Your Time, Tim Hindle; The Complete Idiot's Guide to Organizing Your Life, Georgene Lockwood; Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman; The Organized Executive, Stephanie Winston; Getting out from Under: Redefining Your Priorities in an Overwhelming World, Stephanie Winston

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