Is information overload real? Absolutely. Though the real danger is the flood of potentially meaningful information we let in.

‘Infobesity’ – the Over-consumption of Information – Could Be Raising the Stress Levels of Almost Half of British Office Workers, Reveals a UK Report.

To be clear, even though consuming 35 billion bits of data daily is substantial, that‘s not what’s creating the crisis in organisations around the world. It’s the potential meaning that could be in the information we have received that stresses us out and keeps us from focusing on one thing at a time.

Handling the “Not so important things” 

When you set foot in a forest, every one of your human senses feeds you information about your environment and surroundings. But you don’t implode because initially there aren’t that many things you have to worry about, unless you come across a dangerous animal or suspicious looking fruit. 

Email is a completely different story. You never know which message is urgent, has a hidden agenda, or is just spam. Therefore, every new message in your inbox becomes a potential poisonous berry.

Not knowing which emails are important causes most of us to become overly stressed and pressures us to get through them instantly, instead of working on project tasks at hand.

This leads to addictive behaviour and sometimes getting involved in project tasks that aren’t even on your to-do list.

Addicted to dopamine

Checking and organising emails creates dopamine in the brain (a compound present in the body that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centre) making email highly addictive. It’s no surprise that about 30% of our working day is spent interacting with email. We simply love the rush of going through new messages and quickly replying because it makes us feel extremely productive. However, in reality it’s sapping us of the energy we need to manage projects successfully. 

Your Mind Is for Having Ideas, Not Holding Them

Cognitive load

Managing all this potentially meaningful information in our email inboxes is taxing and according to a study by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, there is a limit to our “cognitive load,” the total amount of mental effort that can be used in the working memory to accomplish a specific task. Once this load is exhausted, hardly any energy is left to make clear and concise decisions.

So how does one deal with all this information without getting stressed?

Don’t Let Things That You Have Considered Not so Important Gnaw Away at Your Energy and Focus – David Allen

1. Clarify and Organise

You have to set apart a time to clarify and organise these inputs before you can act on them. Allen’s GTD method calls this the processing stage: you decide what you want to do with each idea. Is it urgent? What’s the goal? What’s your next action step?

2. Appropriate Use
Match the message to the best medium. Recognise when email is not the best method of communicating. Sometimes face-to-face meetings are better than a string of unclear or sensitive emails going back and forth.

3. To: vs. Cc:
Be discerning about your use of To: vs. Cc:. Why? Ever receive an email where it’s unclear who has the action because everyone is in the “To:” field?

4. Subject Lines
Use clear subject lines that clearly describe the topic.

5. Reply to All
Resist the urge to simply click reply to all, if not everyone needs to receive your reply. Another tip to avoid the Reply to All cycle is to use the Bcc: field for all recipients, when appropriate. That way only the sender will receive the replies.

6. Response Times
What are your agreed upon response times for internal and external communications? If there are none maybe its time to agree them with your relevant stakeholders.