We are a nation that is increasingly dominated by technology and connectivity.  It is changing our personal and business lives for better and worse.  

We simply have too much information.  We are drowning in it.  It is even changing the way our government works to protect us from unknown terrors by collecting our telephone calls, our emails and web page visits.  Data collection and storage is having an impact on our previously solemn right of privacy, if you believe news reports and the NSA Inspector General’s investigations.

New messageConsider this: the National Security Agency (NSA) has built a $2 billion, one-million square foot data center – a gigantic intelligence hard drive – that may be able to store a yottabyte of data, or about 500 quintillion pages of text.  A yottabyte apparently is equal to 1024 zettabytes.  That is a lot of information. 

The problem is, according to James Bamford, a reporter/academic/best-selling author who has written extensively on NSA activities, “The more electronic hay they stack on their haystack, the more difficult it is to find the needle,” Bamford told the New York Times. 

That brings me to my point: business leaders and managers are drowning in information, some unsolicited but mostly that which we download on ourselves.  We read a clever blog or see an interesting article, so we subscribe to the feed because we want to be better informed, up to date, to have the latest and greatest in management intelligence.  We open the floodgates to everything that site has to offer, and a lot that it does not, thanks to unscrupulous web managers who sell our information to others who have information they believe we just cannot live without (Note: we never share our subscriber list).  Almost hourly new “must have” information arrives, so much of it that we have no time to review.  Multiply that by two or three newspapers and other information feeds from four or five other information sites and suddenly you wake up one day to find your mail folders crammed with too much information.

Months later, as you go under for the third time, drowning in this self-inflicted tsunami of information, you wonder how this happened, how did your inbox volume jump from 30 or 40 messages a day, to more than 250.  The resulting irony of this avalanche of data, is that we begin to consistently overlook priority or critical information to be effective in doing our jobs.  

Having data you have no time to analyze is a waste of inbox space and an incredible distraction from being successful at what you were hired to do.  Your boss does not care that you like information and believe it will, one day, lead to your better performance.  Your boss wants timely followup, action and positive results on the things that matter most.

Here are hints on how to manage the flow of information – to be a good curator of the information you really need to have to be successful.

  1. If you find that you consistently run one day, or more, behind in reviewing news, industry updates and regulatory information, stop it.  Immediately complete an audit of the digital clutter and eliminate that which does not directly contribute to your performance. 
  2. Create email rules that will automatically sort and prioritize the flow of incoming information to your inbox, or create multiple accounts so you can easily monitor the inflow.
  3. Before you subscribe or download, ask yourself: is this something I really need, that I should learn about or is it in the category of would be good to have just in the 1/5,000 chance you might need that particular information one day.
  4. Manage your own email habits.  Begin by being respectful of your team or other associates.  They, too, are struggling with the email onslaught.  Do not automatically “respond to all” or send blind copies of your email to people who do not have a dog in the hunt – those who have no need to receive that information.
  5. Do not be a slave to email, constantly stopping other work, or meetings, to respond to a message that just popped in.  In contrast, remember that he who hesitates is lost.  Do not let the inbox pile up because that is when you are most vulnerable to overlooking something truly important.   

My assistant, who does battle with my unwieldy mail folders, is probably hoping that this post is a reflection that I truly get it this time.  I do.