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How to dig out from the information avalanche

Seven out of 10 office workers in the United States feel overwhelmed by information in the workplace, and more than two in five say they are headed for a data “breaking point,” according to a recent survey.
Image: Handheld devices
Three peoplecheck their BlackBerry devices in New York's Times Square. Seven out of 10 office workers in the U.S. feel overwhelmed by information in the workplace, and more than two in five say they are headed for a data “breaking point,” according to a recently released survey.Richard Drew / AP

Don’t expect Shaun Osher, the CEO of Core Group Marketing in New York, to answer your e-mail right away.

He has stopped responding to e-mails every minute and only checks his e-mail account twice a day. He also started turning off his BlackBerry during meetings.

This tactic has made him so much more productive that earlier this year he held a meeting with his staff of 50 and “strongly suggested” that they to stop relying so heavily on e-mail and actually start calling clients on the phone. And, he requested his employees put cell phones and PDAs on silent mode during meetings, as well as curtail the common practice of cc-ing everybody when sending out an e-mail.

"There was so much redundancy, so much unnecessary work," he explains. "One person could handle an issue that should take two minutes, but when an e-mail goes out and five people get cc-ed, then everybody responds to it and there’s a snowball effect."

It’s not that Osher has anything against technology. In fact, he loves it.

The problem is, last year he realized he was inundated with so many e-mails and so much information in general that he began to experience data overload.

"In the beginning, e-mail and all this data was a great phenomenon, revolutionizing what we do. But the pendulum has swung way too much to the other side," he maintains. "We’re less productive."

Osher isn’t the only one out there under a data avalanche. Thanks to technological innovations, you can be talking to a customer on your cell phone, answering a LinkedIn invitation on your laptop, and responding to e-mail on your PDA all at the same time.

And during tough economic times, who wants to miss any information when your job could be on the line if you indulge in the luxury of being offline ?

Turns out, seven out of 10 office workers in the United States feel overwhelmed by information in the workplace, and more than two in five say they are headed for a data “breaking point,” according to a recently released Workplace Productivity Survey, commissioned by LexisNexis — a provider of business information solutions.

Here’s a breakdown of the findings:

  • 62 percent of professionals report that they spend a lot of time sifting through irrelevant information to find what they need; 68 percent wish they could spend less time organizing information and more time using the information that comes their way.
  • Workers admit that not being able to lay their hands on the right information at the right time impedes their ability to work efficiently; 85 percent agree that not being able to access the right information at the right time is a huge time-waster.
  • More than 40 percent of the survey participants indicate an inability to handle future increases in information flow.
  • While an average workday for white-collar workers is 8.89 hours, the survey finds that on average, 7.89 working hours are used conducting research, attending meetings, and searching for previously created documents.
  • White-collar professionals spend an average of 2.3 hours daily conducting online research, with one in 10 spending four hours or more on an average day.

Mike Walsh, CEO of LexisNexis U.S. Legal Markets, says there are a host of reasons we’re all on the information brink: "exponential growth of the size of the information 'haystack,' the ubiquity and immediacy of digital communications, and the fact that professionals are not being provided with sufficient tools and training to help them keep pace with the growing information burden."

Management stressed out, too
It’s not just the rank-and-file feeling the strain. An Accenture survey of managers in the U.S. and the UK found that bosses spend up to two hours a day searching for information, and it turns out more than 50 percent of what they find is useless.

And nearly 60 percent of those surveyed said because of "poor information distribution," they miss information that might be valuable to their jobs almost every day because it exists somewhere else in the company and they just cannot find it. In addition, 42 percent of respondents said they accidentally use the wrong information at least once a week."

Some people are calling for drastic measures to deal with the global village run amok.

Ellen Kossek, a professor from Michigan State and author of "CEO of Me: Creating a Life That Works in the Flexible Job Age," declared March 10 "Rewire Your Life Day." She asked people everywhere to turn off their electronic devices — everything from cell phones to laptops — and reconnect with the people we love, exercise, or just enjoy some quiet time.

Kossek believes we are less productive in this age of 24-7 technology, and our multitasking mentality has spawned a “not-mentally-present” society.

"We’re becoming an [attention-deficit disorder] society switching back and forth like crazy,” Kossek says. "We’re connected all the time. We’re working on planes, in coffee shops, working on the weekends.  Work is very seductive, but we’re actually less effective."

This data oppression is even sparking a whole industry.

Deva Hazarika, CEO of ClearContext Corp., says his product helps prioritize and organize the endless e-mails workers receive.

The system can actually figure out which e-mails are most important based on your history of responding to certain e-mails, and then those e-mails can be automatically highlighted so you can find them easily.

And another company,, takes articles from top-tier publications we all wish we had time to read and boils them down to summary form.

Josh Lahey, vice president for communications company Glover Park Group, uses the service because he never has time to read all those articles on the Internet he prints out. “I felt like I was always missing things. With Brigit, I just search for what I want, and then I get a quick synopsis,” he explains.

The key to getting your head above the data flood, according to workplace experts, is managing and reducing the information you’re bombarded with.

Here are some tips from Todd Dewett, author of “Leadership Redefined” and associate management professor for Wright State University:

  1. Speak with leadership about creating information repositories. Instead of pushing all information from the source to employees’ inboxes, centralize the information. This way employees know exactly where to go to find the relevant information they need instead of wading through excessive material to determine whether they need it.
  2. When you do look at your inbox, immediately sort all e-mails for relevancy. Try using the old 80/20 rule. The “80” are far from life and death — get to them later. The “20” are important and require attention.
  3. For ongoing updates, internal newsletters, notes from meetings, or other recurring e-mails, consider having yourself removed from the list. Here is a rule:  if a recurring e-mail is sent you three times in a row without having any relevance to anything you are doing, get off the list.  
  4. Force a structure on certain e-mails. If you are to receive an update of any kind on a regular basis from key colleagues or direct reports, ask that they follow a particular format. The more you ask for a known structure, the less unrelated or tangential information you will receive and the faster you will be able to effectively process the e-mail.
  5. Do not monitor e-mails continuously. Find, at a minimum, one hour where you remain highly focused with no chance at all of being interrupted by e-mail. If there is an emergency, you have a phone — they will call.  
  6. Do not carry your PDA 24/7. Or at least turn it off once in a while.

Number “6” will be the hardest one for me.