When we start a new job, move to a new role, or a new project comes in, we sometimes feel like we are drinking from a fire hose (if you are unfamiliar with the idiom, here it means overwhelmed with information). Some of us feel we are unable to process all the information that is coming in. For example, we go to our first meeting and we get one TFLA after another (TFLA — Three and Four Letter Acronyms). By the time we look up the definition of the first TFLA, ten more get thrown at us! Clearly, there is a mismatch between information arrival rate and the rate at which we can process information. Very soon we start tuning out of meetings and when they talk about (a product’s) launch, our mind is thinking lunch. Basically, food for thought becomes thought for food.
It is critical to know that feeling overwhelmed with useful information is absolutely normal. However, as supervisors and colleagues, we can do something to help. Easy things are to stop and ask if there are questions. Also, we could present information in multiple formats, for example, instead of asking to read a big bunch of reports, we could share slides and videos of presentations. Most importantly, we could set up one-on-one meetings to explain things in detail. However, as the person feeling the information overload, we can also also ask for these, as oftentimes supervisors and colleagues do not realize these can be done. So feel free to ask to record meetings, ask for slides and other documentation such as wiki pages. It does not hurt to be proactive.
So far what we have talked about is that we know it is normal to be overwhelmed, and we can hint at our condition to our coworkers, and hope for some acknowledgment and understanding. However, before giving you my thoughts about how to deal with information overload, let me refer to an article. The Harvard Business Review has a wonderful article on information overload by Lynne Cazaly (click here). The article uses an appropriate word “infoxication” (a pun on intoxication, I suppose) to describe information overload or data smog. The article talks about some tremendous practical ways and I assume so would Lynne Cazaly’s book (which I am yet to read) “Argh! Too much information, not enough brain: A practical guide to outsmarting overwhelm”.
If we are presented with a lot of documents and articles to read, it does get overwhelming, especially as someone who is new to an organization, role, or project. S. Keshav has written a beautiful article “How to Read a Paper” published here. Although the article itself is about reading research papers, the general principles apply for reports as well. He recommends three passes: in the first pass give it a quick scan reading the title, any executive summaries, the initial remarks, headings of other topics, and glance through any concluding remarks. Then in the second pass, do a light read taking minor notes, and leaving out major details. In the notes we could mark things that are not clear which we could ask others. In the third pass we dive deep into items that are considered important.
And the same principle applies to slides and videos as well. However, none of the strategies mentioned above are going to reduce the information overload. Here are some things to consider to deal with information overload.
Recognizing What is Important
When we are new to a job, role, or project, it is difficult to know what is important. It is easy to say to “focus on the important stuff”. But how do we know what is important? Of course, the easiest thing is to ask your supervisor (or customer, if we are talking about new project) if something is important. But many times we may not get the face time needed to ask that. Simple rule of thumb is anything that aligns with both our as well as our organization’s success, is important. However, for that we need to know how success is defined for the organization, and how our success is measured. The usual suspects are “saves money” and “gets us recognized/promoted”. It is also important to recognize that there will be interesting things that may neither be urgent, nor important.
Many times we feel confident we will always remember the important information we get, for after all it is so important. But for most of us that memory fades away. It is crucial to resist the temptation to think we will always remember the important stuff and never organize it. And that would be disastrous as in all probability we may have to go back and re-read or re-watch the whole thing. So it is crucial to stay organized by taking notes, writing comments in code, highlighting, categorizing information, having a folder structure, and jotting down the source of information. This way everything is beautifully linked together in a possibly hierarchical network structure. It will also allow us to see how things are connected among the important things.
Knowing Your Strengths
There are different ways to organize and store information. In fact, even though we may have read PDF documents of various reports, it is not necessary to put everything down in PDF documents (like comments and highlights, but if you choose to, that is a good way). You may want to write down thoughts by hand on paper or type in a text file. You could also draw your thoughts and maintain a visual representation of the information. Some people like to use voice and video for information. In other words, irrespective of how you are presented the information, you can choose to organize it in a fashion that works for you. For that you need to know your strengths and what works for you. Further, it may also be useful to present information in multiple modes (for example a picture and notes with a copy of the picture).
In summary, get your information, process them, and store them efficiently. That would go a long way in dealing with information overload. Additionally, do not feel afraid asking for help, asking questions, and asking for feedback. Make a clear plan for the first several weeks, take down notes the way you like to, and spend some time learning the ropes.