5 Tips for Managing Information Overload

Emails, phone calls, status alerts, updates. We are constantly interrupted at work. At the Pink Elephant ITSM conference  Dr Joanne Cantor talked about how to manage the bombardment of bleeps and pings that demand our attention.

Here are 5 of her tips for managing information overload.

1. Have a list of ‘drop everything’ contacts

Many of us are ‘always on’. The lines between work and play have blurred to the point that I take work calls and check my messages while I am on holiday. It works both ways, though. I’ll also take long lunches to catch up with friends or leave the office early for the hairdresser. Work/life integration (to me) means making this kind of arrangement a success.

Note: we used to call this work/life balance but that doesn’t accurately describe how we blend our work and personal life anymore.

However, no one can cope with being always on all the time. Cantor recommended prioritising a small group of people who need to reach you instantly. These could be your boss, a senior manager or the nursery that your child attends. When you switch work off, make sure these people have an alternative way of getting hold of you if they need to. Then you’ll still feel connected to those that matter without having the burden of being ‘on’ for everyone.

You can plan out who needs to be on this list by using the templates in this kit so that you can easily prioritise the right work people (and then add your personal contacts too). It will help you identify who is really influential at work.

Get these templates for managing project stakeholdersr Management Templates

2. Focus

Cantor and another speaker, Nicholas Carr, both commented that the internet and the way in which we work now means we have less ability to focus. I call this a ‘butterfly mind’. You flit from one subject to another. They both argued that we have lost the ability to concentrate on one thing at a time.

I don’t agree. I do get twitchy if I’m watching TV programmes and not doing something else at the same time (I’m making baby shoes at the moment for a raft of newborns due this spring). I don’t cope well staring into space on the tube if I have forgotten to bring a book. But I do think people can still focus on a single activity if they try hard enough. If you have forgotten how, try reading a gripping book and seeing how difficult it is to put it down. Next time you feel an unrelated task coming on, write it down and do it later – don’t get distracted now.

3. Master your interruptions

When you sit down to write a project report, close down your email client until you are finished. Switch your phone to silent instead of vibrate. Change your status on your instant messaging client to unavailable. You can even set your out of office message on email to let people know when you will be next available.

Block out time in your calendar to do actual work – not meetings, not travelling to visit clients. I know it sounds stupid, but some weeks if I don’t do this I just end up with two weeks of work to do the following week instead.

4. Sleep well

Cantor talked about the reviving powers of sleep. She advised scheduling problem solving so that you have at least one night to sleep on the issue. Your mind works on the problem overnight and you could wake up with the answer, or at least a new perspective on the issue.

Put a notebook next to the bed so that if you do wake up in the night full of great ideas you can capture them and act on them in the morning.

5. Play

Cantor talked about the story of the grasshopper, who played all day, and the ant, who worked all day. It’s not a story I knew, but the morale was clear: you can’t work all the time and expect to be productive.

Take breaks. Cantor said that people who actively relax and have a good work/life integration find they need to work fewer hours than workaholics because their brains operate more efficiently.


  1. Elizabeth, I agree with you that information overload is something most of us frequently face in today’s fast-paced work environment. When we were making Wrike’s infographic on time management, I came across an interesting fact: on the average, a worker gets an interruption every 8 minutes during the day. Obviously, this doesn’t make us more efficient. To avoid getting knocked off the course, it’s important to stay focused on one thing at a time. And when you can’t remember everything – let the software take some information load off your mind 🙂

  2. For various reasons known only to the mobile phone network I have been without my iPhone working fully for a full 3 weeks  -calls only. It has inadvertantly proven to me that I really dont need to be checking my emails every 5 minutes or when the phone beeps. Now it is working I need to re-think my approach to being always ‘on’. I am not totally bought in to the technology making us more efficient – rather the opposite as we happily waste hours surfing and checking to re-affirm how important we are by responding to contact day or night.

    1. Clare, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the ‘re-affirming how important we are’ comment. Another way of looking at it is that humans are social beings and we like being connected to others. We might not be conscious of doing it, but I’m sure that many people feel disappointed when they haven’t got mail because getting mail validates that they are connected to other people and that other people value them.

  3. On sleep – one thing I have a problem with is checking my phone for emails while I am in bed.  This is especially problematic in the middle of the night when the baby wakes up or in the morning.  There aren’t any emails that are worth reading or dealing with at that time of the day and I keep telling myself I’m going to have to start putting the phone in the other room at night.  

    1. I am terrible at doing this – now I have an iPad I sometimes deliberately bring it into the bedroom with me so that I can check my emails and tweets before getting up in the morning. I do a lot of work with people in the US so unfortunately for me there are usually emails that are worth reading!

      I have turned the vibrate off my BlackBerry though as that was bugging me in the night (along with the flashing red light that just says: “check me now, someone is waiting for an urgent reply” when it is probably just another email newsletter).

  4. I’m working with my boss to help him with email overload. I think your first three suggestions will be of help to him. I think the commentor before me said it well that “Using email filters can help minimise inbox ‘deluges’…” but knowing how to set up the filters and then implementing the filters seems to be the problem he’s having…

    1. Bekah, something else he could try is unsubscribing. I have no idea how I have ended up on so many email lists from vendors and other third parties. Some have been a conscious decision on my part, some must be because I had my badge scanned at a conference or another reason that has ended up with a lot of junk mail. Unsubscribe from as much as you (he) can, and hopefully that will mean fewer mails to deal with each day.

  5. Using email filters can help minimise inbox ‘deluges’ – by having a few simple filters set up you can narrow your focus and make things more manageable.

    1. I am not a big fan of filters because I use my inbox as my to do list. If emails get sucked into different folders, there is a risk that I’ll never look at them. Also, the emails are still there – the overload hasn’t disappeared, it has just been more neatly organised. I don’t have a solution, and I know that filters work successfully for some of my colleagues, so if this works for you, that’s great.

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