Sunday, 16 March 2014

5 Ways to Avoid Information Overload

                                         Image courtesy of Pong /

Almost all of us suffer from it these days. Information overload. Have you ever sat down to do a little research on something? Maybe you wanted to learn all you could about Sperm Whales? The topic doesn't matter. It's the process we're concerned with here.

You start a search on your topic of choice and up pops a whole bunch of choices. You methodically work your way through the listings, searching in vain for the bug that will satisfy your curiosity. Before you know it four hours have flown by, and you have no idea where the time went!

This doesn't sound like the end of the world - especially if you found what you're looking for right? Well I don't know about you, but it doesn't always work out quite so well for me. Half the time I'm searching for one thing, and come across something entirely different that gets me side tracked. Before I know it, I'm out of time, and no further along than when I started.

So how do we avoid this? This is something I've given a great deal of thought, and in this article I'll present 5 ways I attempt to avoid the information overload trap. Let's take a look.

1. Focus, stay on task.

Maintaining your focus may seem like the obvious thing to do, but it's not always easy. Temptation is everywhere. Offline distractions abound, as do online ones. There are a couple of things I do to combat this and maintain my focus. 

First, consider finding yourself a private space away from everyone else. I know this is not always easy, but if you can do this you'll find it easier to focus on the task at hand. 

If this isn't possible, consider a set of head phones! I find a little instrumental music can really drown out the background noise and get me in "The Zone". I would avoid your favourite pop or rock songs, anything with lyrics in it can be a further distraction.

The second thing I do is to clearly define the task at hand. One I've done this I constantly remind myself to keep focused on that task. No matter how interesting an article might be, If it doesn't provide the answer I'm looking for I disregard it and move on. Admittedly, this is a difficult thing to do at times, but it is essential if you want to avoid information overload.

2. Set yourself a time limit.

We all have a finite amount of time available to us, and most of us feel like there aren't enough hours in the day. Information overload has a lot to do with this. The more we look for something, the more interesting discoveries we come across that peak our curiosity. 

Unless you've got a computer for a brain you can't store everything available on the Internet - so don't try! Keeping focused on the task at hand helps to avoid information overload, but so does setting yourself a time limit. Deadlines are a part of life. Create one for yourself and stick to it. This doesn't mean you can't revisit the problem at a later date if necessary, but make sure you reschedule a time for this when you're not distracted by other things. 

3. Consider an offline source for your search to avoid distractions.

Remember those old fashion things we used to use? You know, libraries and book stores? Well they're still around. Heading over to your local library can be a great way to establish a focused approach to your task. Being in this formal environment has a way of keeping you on topic. At least it does for me!

It will also get you out of the house and away from the everyday distractions that can so easily swallow your time. You don't have to worry about feeling guilty about ignoring your four year olds insistence on attention. In fact, by getting away from the house you will probably accomplish your task quicker and have more time to spend with your family!

4. Plan your search before starting.

Plan your search. Don't just start with a random search of the Web. Think about where the information you need is likely to be found and use this as your starting point. Most of the time it's the random search in the dark that leads you off on a tangent. If you're focused, set yourself a time limit, and you have a plan, you won't feel so overwhelmed.

Your initial plan might not yield the results you were hoping for, but at least you have a defined starting point. Sometimes veering off track is unavoidable, but if you start out with a plan you should be able to minimize this. Planning really is that important.

5. Evaluate your search at regular time intervals.

It is so important to keep yourself on track. We've talked about setting yourself a time limit. Evaluating your search at regular time intervals is sort of a time limit within a time limit! Let's say you've set aside an hour to accomplish a task. We could then break this down into fifteen minute time intervals.

After every fifteen minutes stop and ask yourself if you are still on task? If not you'll either get right back on track, or perhaps you were asking the wrong question in the first place. By reevaluating your efforts every fifteen minutes you can avoid wasting a whole lot of time on irrelevant questions!

What tools do you use to avoid information overload? Can you think of some that aren't included in this article? Let me know. I'd love to hear about it!