A full frontal extreme information overload . . .
If you are reading this, then you are nodding your head. You too are inflicted with the same management problem as everyone else, the management of too much information. You are not alone . . . but then again you are probably reading this in isolation . . . from beneath the bed covers, whilst on the train or maybe, just maybe whilst cycling to work!!
We are so connected, yet so alone. An interesting conundrum and a topic for another day. For this article is not seeking to address your hermit status beneath the surreal glow of your device, this article wants to look at how best to manage your information overload.
Whether it is a flashing red light, a beep, a ding or a simple vibration, we are connected to a grid that does not rest. It tweets us, calls us, favourites us, shares us, likes us and above all else, it gives us the power to send volumes of information at the click of a button.
We love it, we hate it, we curse it and yet we embrace it on a 24-hour basis. It gets carried about, tucked into bra straps, placed into swishing pockets, tossed onto car seats and placed under pillows whilst we sleep. But it does not sleep, it does not rest. It works tirelessly to feed us the information whether we subscribe to it or not.
And to deal with this information, we have our brain. A trillion celled organ that makes executive decisions on a daily basis within the region of its frontal lobes.
Our frontal lobes plan our day, make management decisions, set priorities and generally keep the ship afloat. Everything is bliss so long as we can juggle and manage the stress and angst that is associated with our information streams. It can be a fine balance and at times we need to share the skills of a circus juggler to stay upright.
You might be the finest juggler married up with the skills of an acrobat. But eventually you are worn down by the frenzied attack of your information overload.
At some time, for all of us, it becomes too much. Our decision making process is skewed resulting in poor judgment and poor decisions that we never thought ourselves capable of making in the past.
Our poor decisions appear even more bizarre when assessed in the cool light of day. We find little salvation in our hollow explanations to management when explaining the outcomes associated with our fried decision-making.
So what happens when the circuits start to over heat with information? To understand what occurs, we need to examine the relationship between the upper and lower regions of the brain. And to explore this relationship, the explanation provided by Edward M. Hallowell provides a nice summary.
The lower regions of your brain govern basic survival functions and keeps in check your emotions. Hallowell describes their function as follows:
When you are doing well and operating at peak level, the deep centres send up messages of excitement, satisfaction, and joy. They pump up your motivation, help you maintain attention, and don’t interfere with working memory, the number of data points you can keep track of at once.
The break down occurs when you start having too much on your plate. The survival regions of your brain start to react and the fear from within starts to rise. Hallowell says that fear shifts us into survival mode and prevents fluid learning and nuanced understanding.
Eventually, there is a dogfight that takes place between your frontal lobes and those deeper regions of your brain. Your body reacts to the circumstances of panic and your fight or flight mode is triggered with the sudden release of adrenalin and hormones.
And the response in these circumstances is powerful. Hallowell notes that:
Thousands of years of evolution have taught the higher brain not to ignore the lower brain’s distress signals . . . The deep regions interpret the messages of overload from the frontal lobes in the same way they interpret everything: primitively. They furiously fire signals of fear, anxiety, impatience, irritability, anger, or panic. These alarm signals shanghai the attention of the frontal lobes, forcing them to forfeit much of their power.
Eventually the body is at battle stations with the situation. Reason and rationality have left you and you are forced to work through the situation with little in the way of executive decision-making.
So what do you need to do to avoid this extreme level of melt down?
First, do a quick audit of your current workload. How does the ‘in basket’ look? Full? And how long has the item on the bottom of that basket been sitting there? Days, weeks or months? Action that item first before it burns a hole through your desk.
One of Hallowell’s patients uses what he describes as the OHIO rule: Only Handle It Once. The patient says “I don’t put it in a pile. Piles are like weeds. If you let them grow, they take over everything”.
Secondly, make every effort to delegate work to your team members. They may lack your refined skill level, however, with some clear instructions they will get the wheels in motion and help get the task completed resulting in major stakeholders being kept satisfied.
If you have an assistant, then empower them. Let them help in ways that will allow you to push through more work by being more disciplined with your time management. Hallowell says:
“Empower an assistant to ride herd on you; insist that he or she tell you to stop emailing, get off the phone, or leave the office.
Thirdly, maintain an organised regime. Assess your working routine and understand the times during the week when you are at your best to do those more difficult jobs that require high levels of concentration. Block those times out in your diary and don’t let yourself become distracted by tasks that are less important.
Of critical importance is to never leave your desk in a mess. Tidy your desk at the end of the day. Usually we are desperate to get out from behind the desk at days end. However, there is nothing more stressful than to be greeted in the morning to yesterday’s mess.
Organisation at every level is key to keeping your head above water on a daily basis.
Fourthly, prepare a list of critical items to be actioned the following day before leaving the office. Hallowell contends that short lists force you to prioritise which in turn provides assistance with the completion of important tasks.
Fifthly, allow yourself to have some ‘white space’. Time that allows your brain to relax without interruption from your electronic device. It might be running, it might be boxing, it might be taking in a movie with your beloved. Whatever the tonic, give yourself some time out. Time that will allow your circuits to recover from their state of overload.
Finally, watch for signs of distress. Keep check on your decision-making processes by understanding the number of critical tasks that you are juggling. It is easy to become distracted and to miss a critical issue or date that will inevitably shift the body into crisis mode.
 Edward M. Hallowell, Harvard Business Review article ‘Overloaded Circuits’ 2005