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7 Ways to Fight Information Overload and Save 10 Hours per Month

[fa icon="calendar"] Jun 1, 2016 6:00:00 AM / by Colin Kennedy

Colin Kennedy

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Information Overload is a funny thing. We can all relate to it because it annoys each and every one of us. I’m willing to bet that in the past month, 90% of the people reading this have clenched their fists, thrown their arms into the sky, and shouted “WHERE THE $&@# IS ________!?” Or at least you thought about it. That’s because the inability to locate something – typically information – is one of the most common byproducts of Information Overload.

Lots of times these annoyances are minor and seem inconsequential; just this morning I spent a good 10-15 minutes trying to track down an invoice. After looking through my email correspondences and coming up empty, I checked the Dropbox folder we use to share files. Again, no luck. It wasn’t until I reached out to the vendor and they directed me to an email – from QuickBooks (duh) – that I was able to locate the invoice. Sure, this is annoying, but it’s no big deal, right?

Other times the situation can be a lot more stressful. Have you ever found yourself scrambling to submit a major work proposal before its deadline? It wasn’t because you procrastinated…you just got stuck spending a ton of time trying to locate all of the different files and pieces of information that were necessary. You found some of what you needed in your inbox (eventually), while other stuff was located in a poorly named folder on your company’s file server. Thankfully you got everything out in time, but there were a few too many anxious moments in the lead-up.

But what people don’t realize is that the Information Overload problem is much more than an occasional annoyance – it impacts us far more often than we realize, and the negative effects are much worse than we imagine.

Thankfully for you, the entire Shelf team hates to see people wasting time and energy on this problem. Seriously, we are NOT fans of Information Overload. So we put together a guide on how you can eliminate scenarios where this problem often presents itself.

A Quick Intro to Information Overload

Before we get into how to address the problem, let’s see if the statistics back up my claim that Information Overload is a much bigger problem that we realize.

First things first, let’s take a look at the scale of the problem. As it turns out, it’s GINORMOUS! Here’s a graph that depicts the amount of information we’ve created as a human race. Notice anything? Yeah, me too…it’s seems like we’ve gone absolutely ballistic creating information recently.

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The fact that we’re creating a lot more information can’t come as a surprise – it’s clear that the Internet has made it so much easier to create content. And now that the cloud has matured, we’re also able to store and share a staggering amount of private information in ways that we never could before. But it is kind of hard to wrap you mind around the fact that in two days we create the same amount of information that it took all of humanity to create from the dawn of civilization to 2003. That's CRAZY.

This explosion of content has a number of profound implications, but I’d like to highlight two in particular:

Our brains are overloaded - we consume 74 GB of data/day!

Don’t trust me – trust the Dr. Daniel Levitin, the professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience at McGill University! Did I mention that he’s a three time New York Times best-selling author? Here’s what he had to say in a recent interview on CNN...

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The entire interview with Dr. Levitin is fascinating, but the concept of decision fatigue really stood out to me. It explains those days when I’m constantly jumping from one task to another, but when I look back at what I accomplished, I feel as though I “got nothing done”. What happens next? I’ll usually shift my focus to high priority items, only to find that I lack the energy necessary to fully think through the decision-making process.

Does this sound familiar? I’ll confess to making more than a few poor decisions over the years. And upon reflection, most of them were not because I didn’t have the information available to make a better one, I simply lacked the capacity to make a good decision because my brain was tired.

So let me put it to you, Mr. or Mrs. Reader, what’s the cost of poor decision making at your job? For many, it’s the difference between winning or losing a new account, making or avoiding a poor hire, or investing your company’s time and resources in the right or wrong initiatives. Sounds like a big deal to me!

The average office worker wastes nearly 500 hours/year just tracking things down...

Over the past few years, I’ve become increasingly frustrated by the information retrieval process. It seems like with each passing month I burn more and more time on this mundane task. But it wasn’t until I interviewed Susan Gunelius, CEO of KeySplash Creative, author of Content Marketing for Dummies and 9 other books, did I realize exactly how much time and money was being spent on this common activity.

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Whoa – those are some seriously troubling numbers! In fact, you could make the case that approximately 25% of our work lives are spent trying to locate the proper content. Here’s how I arrived at that number…

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The thing that blows my mind is that even if you’re 2X as efficient as the average person, you’re still spending an excessive amount of time on search and retrieval activities. My interview with Susan is chock full of additional details and statistics about Information Overload and how we can combat it - check out the full interview here.

THERE IS HOPE...USE THESE 7 TIPS TO RECLAIM WASTED TIME

I could make this entire blog about the implications of Information Overload – it’s that big of a problem – but we’ll leave that for another forum. Not to mention the fact that harping on the problem all the time is kind of a downer. So let’s talk solutions!

The good news is that there is hope; there are many different ways for us to significantly reduce the negative impact of Information Overload. In the following sections, I’m going to highlight 7 easy-to-implement tactics and tools that will eliminate hours and hours of wasted time, while also making you more productive and impactful. Here's a quick overview:

  1. Use folders to Help Someone Who Is Not You (Right Now) find what they need
  2. Too many open browser tabs is harmful to your brain
  3. Save time and frustration with a Password Manger
  4. Zap your productivity apps so they work together
  5. Eliminate distractions and find your flow while writing
  6. Manage inbox chaos with Labels
  7. Save your most important content in one place

#1: USE FOLDERS TO HELP SOMEONE WHO IS NOT YOU (RIGHT NOW) FIND WHAT THEY NEED: 

Estimated Time Savings: 2 hours/month (save teammates more!)

Setting up a folder structure can be a tricky thing – especially when you’re sharing those folders with other people on a file server or a cloud platform like Dropbox or Google Drive. Everyone’s brain works a bit differently, so if there isn’t agreement on a basic structure to your folders, people will name folders according to their own personal naming convention and chaos will eventually ensue within your team/group/organization.

This may sound like a daunting, monotonous, soul-crushing task (or some combination of the 3), but Patrick Clapp – an Information Research Specialist at Harvard Business School was good enough to speak with me and share a few practical nuggets of wisdom on how to do this in a way that doesn’t require a ton of time or reflection. Patrick explained that in a project-oriented environment, the top-level folders should be identical to facilitate findability, discovery, and reuse-ability at a future date.

This allows everyone to get off on the right foot when they need to track something down. And don’t worry, he’s not advocating that every folder structure is entirely the same throughout. As you get beyond the first layer of subfolders it makes sense to have a more project-specific naming convention so you can find the specific files with greater ease. Makes sense, right?!

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The other “lightbulb-going-off-in-my-head” moment was when Patrick told me that our systems for organizing documents should have a forward looking purpose. Essentially, if the structure won’t allow you to find something easily, 6 months from now, it’s near-worthless. 

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So help Future You and your teammates out and spend 15 minutes next meeting agreeing to a high-level folder structure for your projects.

#2: TOO MANY OPEN BROWSER TABS IS HARMFUL TO YOUR BRAIN: 

Estimated Time Savings: 1 hour/month

Just a couple of weeks ago Trello’s newsletter included an article from blogger Lauren Moon on why we have so many browser tabs open. Her opening lines described a predicament of mine to a T…

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As it turns out, I’m one of those people who is waging an intense battle with browser tabs…and all too often I lose. Hell, sometimes I even open a couple of different browsers and use each one for a different type of work, just to give myself a slightly better starting point for when I need to comb through them. Don’t believe me? Here’s a snapshot of what my “work” browser tab looks like!

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Why does this matter? It goes back to the tax we’re unnecessarily putting on our brain. In Lauren’s piece she references a study from the University of Sussex which found that the more a person multitasks, the less gray matter they possess in the part of the brain that handles cognitive and emotional processing. In layman’s terms, multitasking messes with your brain! 

Lauren offers a few suggestions that center around the curation of news, content, and web links. One is a tool called Nuzzel that does two useful things:

1) Suggests topic-specific newsletters to the user, based on their interests

2) Provides you with content that is likely to be of interest to you, based on who you follow on Twitter 

It’s pretty simple – sign in with your Twitter account and you can see sorted lists of content that are prioritized based on the number of Twitter followers who have interacted with that Tweet. You’re also able to cast a wider net and the content that your “Friends of Friends” and interested in:

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You can check out Lauren’s entire blog entry here.

A little curation can go a long way to combatting Information Overload and improving focus…why not start with those browser tabs?

#3: SAVE TIME AND FRUSTRATION WITH A PASSWORD MANAGER:

Estimated Time Savings: 2 hours/month

OK, so this one is a no-brainer folks. And I can speak from personal experience because our CTO, Tobias, recently converted me from being a person who had no good system to speak of to someone who can’t imagine living without a tool to manage passwords. Most password managers will tell you that the primary benefit of their tool is that it provides very secure passwords that you don’t need to keep track of.

What I found is the biggest value-add for me was the time it saved. With LastPass (the tool we use at Shelf) I save time because I can access all my passwords directly within the browser. Prior to this, I had a crazy-long master spreadsheet and it was a total pain to find it, open it up, and locate the password I was looking for. Even better, the time savings get amplified exponentially when you’re sharing passwords amongst your team. As LastPass blogger Lauren VanDam explains…

“When sharing passwords in the workplace, it’s too easy to lose accountability and too difficult to make sure everyone is following good password security practices. Teams often share these passwords over email, instant message tools or other non-secure ways. Password managers, like LastPass, mitigate risks by allowing you to share access without sharing passwords.” – Lauren VanDam 

Here’s a link to read the blog in its entirety, and here’s a screenshot that sums up what I like about LastPass (and Password Managers in general). 

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With just one click of the browser extension, I’m able to auto-populate my secure password into a login field, I can automatically generate a secure password for any sites where I’m creating my account for the first time, and I can launch my entire library of passwords.

It saves me time and frustration and it’ll will do the same for you.

#4: ZAP YOUR PRODUCTIVITY APPS SO THEY WORK TOGETHER: 

Estimated Time Savings: 1 hour/month (per productivity Zap)

If you haven’t heard of Zapier yet, welcome to the party! Zapier is a web application that makes it easy to automate tasks (a.k.a. a Zap) by connecting different web technologies easily and elegantly.

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The best part is that you truly do not need to be a programmer to implement Zapier. Other technologies make this claim, but many fail to live up to the promise. To learn more about how to leverage Zapier and other technologies without writing code, Tara Reed’s blog is a great place to start. She is the CEO of a tech startup called Kollecto and she highlights the many advancements she’s made as an early stage company, all while NOT writing code. This entry provides some great nuts-and-bolts details of how she’s used different technologies, like Zapier to make things happen.

The reason why this is a big deal and a huge time saver is because writing code is HARD. It takes really smart people a lot of time and energy, and if you’re not a founder/programmer, it probably means that it’s also costing you a lot of money. So to be able to easily automate processes that used to require the skills of a coder is a game changer. With Zapier, they’re always creating new Zaps and they do a good job of highlighting some of the most frequently used ones.

Say, for example that you have a Facebook Ads campaign and you’re having a tough time making sure that your new leads are receiving your MailChimp email newsletter. In less than five minutes you can automate the process of sending your new leads into your MailChimp list (it’s even faster if you’ve got a Password Manager handy for your Facebook and MailChimp logins!)

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The setup process is extremely straightforward:

  • Select your Zap
  • Create your Zapier account (if you’re a first time user)
  • Connect you’re the accounts that you want to connect via Zapier
  • Follow any instructions provided by Zapier on how to configure your connected account. In this example, Zapier directs you to a page that will allow you to test whether or not my Facebook Ads leads are, in fact, populating in the designated MailChimp list.

Now, I don’t need to worry about whether or not my MailChimp list is current with my Facebook Ads AND I’ve eliminated one of those annoying, oft-forgotten task from my To Do List. The takeaway here is that task automation is becoming easier and easier – so take advantage of it!

#5: ELIMINATE DISTRACTIONS AND FIND YOUR FLOW WHILE WRITING:

Estimated Time Savings: 1 hour/month

I’m of the opinion that writing is pretty hard. Especially creative writing that involves doing research, producing a well-conceived structure, and articulating fully formed thoughts. Writing this blog has been a quasi-Herculean task for me :)

But the truth is that we have a tendency to make this task harder on ourselves than it has to be. So how do we simplify and streamline things for ourselves? Jean Tang, CEO of the copywriting company MarketSmiths and contributor to Forbes, explains her process for copywriting in this video.

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As Jean points out, each one of us will have a slightly different methodology for writing, but if the goal is to get into “the flow” so you can produce a quality piece in the shortest amount of time, a little preparation can go a long way. Here’s a simple prep check list to work from to set you up for success, before you write one word of copy:

  1. Not sure where to start? Figure out if your problem is a lack of inspiration or a lack of information.
  2. If you’re lacking inspiration, find some way to clear your head (Jean suggests some sort of physical activity – going for a walk, yoga, etc.).
  3. If you don’t have adequate information – get some! Type a couple of keywords into Google and start browsing. If you’re writing a piece of copy for work, it’s a great idea to see what the thought leaders in your industry are writing about.
  4. Develop an outline before writing any copy – the structure will help keep you focused and the process of creating an outline will bring clarity to what you hope to achieve with your copy.
  5. Gather all of the information you’ll need – research, outline, brand guidelines, interview notes, etc. – so these writing aides are readily accessible. And readily available DOES NOT mean “somewhere in my email” or that you have a Google tab open to conduct ad hoc searches.

Preparing to write and the act of writing are two separate activities – it’s best to treat them as such.

#6: MANAGE INBOX CHAOS WITH LABELS: 

Estimated Time Savings: 1 hour/month

The email inbox is a great thing to focus on when tackling the Information Overload problem because it likely contains the majority of your documented communications. And whether you get dozens or hundreds of emails a day, a little structure can go a long way in reducing the “noise”, so you can stay focused on the emails that are actually important, whichever ones they happen to be in that moment.

HowToGeek does a great job of providing an extremely detailed, step-by-step approach for setting up your Gmail inbox for greater efficiency and decreased clutter. It starts with the simplest, high-level suggestions and shows you how to build-in additional logic to save even more time and frustration. For my part, instead regurgitating what they already produced, I want to highlight how you can “connect the dots” between your folder structure and your inbox to amplify the impact that a little structure can bring.

“Labels allow you to organize your email messages into categories. They are similar to folders however, unlike folders, you can apply more than one label to a single message.” - HowToGeek

By using the Labels feature to mirror the first few layers of the standardized folder structure we talked about in Section 3, you seamlessly move from inbox to folder and vice-versa without having to give a second thought on how something is being categorized. Let me show you what I mean…

  1. On the left hand menu in Gmail locate the link to Manage Labels. It is towards the bottom and if you and if you don’t see it right away, click “More” and you’ll see it there.
  2. This will bring you to the Settings screen. From here, scroll down until you reach the Labels section.
  3. Click the “Create New Label” button.
  4. Enter the name of the first folder in your folder structure (see Section 3 above). Repeat this step until all of your top level folders are recreated as Gmail labels.

Continue by creating the first layer of subfolders in your folder structure (again, see Section 3 above). The trick here is that it is more useful to de-couple the subfolder categories from the top level categories. So, do not “nest label under” any other folders. Let me explain why…

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At first, this seemed counterintuitive to me…wouldn’t I want more structure? But as it turns out, decoupling one layer of categories from the other makes it a lot easier to filter your inbox in different, useful ways. This is because Gmail allows you to add multiple Labels to one email chain. If they didn’t do this, my approach would be different. Here is a small sample of my inbox where this consistent structure has been applied via Labels:

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By separating the layers, for lack of a better term, I can filter across different categories. This way I can see all of the different categories within a particular project OR I can sort by a category and see across different projects.

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The reason why this is a more powerful approach is because it gives your greater flexibility on how you view your emails, which makes retrieval a much easier task.

By extending the shared folder structure naming convention to your inbox, and by using Labels this way you’ll greatly reduce the amount of time spent locating content from within emails.

#7: SAVE YOUR MOST IMPORTANT CONTENT IN ONE PLACE: 

Estimated Time Savings: 2 hours/month

A theme that keeps popping up throughout this blog is the value in centralizing important information. The problem is that it’s any easy thing to say, but it hasn’t always been the easiest thing to do. As Shelf’s CEO/President Sedarius Perrotta explains, the combination of different cloud platforms and an increasing diversity of content types has created a problem: 

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When would a tool like this come in handy? Let’s imagine that you’re working on a pitch deck for a client about their content strategy for the next 12 months. Because it’s a new account (and a major brand name) everyone on both sides – including senior management – will be reviewing what you produce. So you put your absolute best effort into the deck by: conducting market research, profiling key competitors, analyzing their website and social media accounts, reviewing the deliverables outlined the client’s contract, and much more.

Instead of having to navigate across your email correspondences, the web, your company file server, and the shared Dropbox folder your two organizations use to share files, you can connect everything to Shelf so you have a single location for all of the different types of content that ultimately goes into making a fantastic pitch deck.

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This, on its own is a nice time-saver, but the bigger time savings are realized when you need to locate a particular piece of information. The findability tools give you a number of ways to locate information, reducing the amount of brain power you need to exert on this task. Heck, you can even match your folder structure (Section 3) and Gmail Labels (Section 9) to further reduce unproductive Search time.

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Setting yourself up for success only takes a few easy steps:

  1. Install the Web Clipper so you can capture any sort of interesting content found on the internet (blogs, videos, podcasts, etc.)
  2. Upload the folder structure you created on your company file server in Section 3 and all associated files.
  3. Connect the cloud storage accounts you use (Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox, etc.) to effectively search inside the documents stored there.
  4. Use Hatrack Filters and Search to find whatever you need in seconds.

 Stop asking yourself questions like “Where did I save this?”, “Who sent me that link?” and “What was that file called?” and stay focused on more important tasks.

CONCLUSION: 

Looking back at these suggestions, it’s clear to me why each one of these is so valuable. Almost all of them are geared towards reducing the brain tax that is created any time you need to think about where a piece of information is located or how to store it.

When viewed through the prism of a single act, these suggestions seem rather meaningless, but the reality is that we humans are in a near constant state of information storage and retrieval. In a normal day, I personally perform these tasks in excess of one hundred times…and the same probably goes for you. That’s where the impact of these tactics start to add up. And when you consider the effect they can bring over the course of a week, or a month, it becomes clear that ironing out these inefficiencies is a game-changer for us all.

If you adopt these recommendations, not only will you have more time available for the things that matter, but you’ll have a clearer head to make better decisions as well.

So that’s a wrap…for now. There are tons of tools and tactics out there for being more productive. So if it turns out that you folks are into more of this kind of info, just leave me a note below and I’ll get to work another edition

Thanks,

Colin Kennedy

Topics: Productivity, Information Overload

Colin Kennedy

Written by Colin Kennedy

Colin is the Founder and COO of Shelf.io and 2x software entrepreneur. He also serves as an informal advisor to early-stage tech companies and can be reached at colin@shelf.io

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