Hundreds of e-mails. Voicemails piling up. Endless meetings to attend, and countless knocks at your office door.
Information overload is a pernicious source of workplace stress.
Technology that connects us constantly to our work, incessant demands for immediate responses, constant changes and interruptions plus a relentless flow of new information are all contributing to increased impatience, irritation and anger on the job.
Complaints of memory loss, anxiety and confusion are common. People find they’re extremely busy yet don’t get anything done. That means productivity decreases. Self-confidence plummets as people can’t meet demands. Their sleep becomes disturbed and their health even suffers.
Unfortunately, some of the measures taken to offset the problem inadvertently contribute to it. Devices like a Blackberry or Palm Pilot can increase, rather than decrease the pace.
Exhausted people reach for various “tools” like time-management tips or ideas on how to handle voluminous e-mail. Some try multi-tasking to cope. Yet research suggests our brains cannot do two things well at the same time. (That’s why driving while on a cell phone is so dangerous).
Dr. Bob Acton, a clinical psychologist in Calgary, says looking solely for external solutions like technological tools, or even medications such as anti-depressants, may be the wrong approach. Speaking at a BC Human Resources and Management Association symposium in Vancouver recently, Acton recommended that people take two simple steps to get a handle on information overload:
Step 1. One Thing At A Time
Acton suggests maintaining a “full presence” when tackling any task, whether it is talking with colleagues, writing a report or answering e- mail. Do one thing at a time. Don’t talk on the phone while answering an e-mail, for example.
It’s easier said than done. But if you find yourself jumping from one task to another, Acton recommends stopping and getting grounded. He advises sitting upright in your chair with your feet solidly on the ground to help you focus. If you are standing, you should correct your posture and plant both feet on the ground. Once people become aware of their bodies, they are less likely to be distracted.
Being centered is the next factor that helps people stay fully present. Acton recommends staff watch their breathing to remain in the here and now. Noticing your breath entering your body and then exhaling normally is a way to calm the mind. When you find your attention slipping away, become conscious of your breathing. Once people are grounded and centered they can bring their full attention to their task.
Acton says this takes practice, but when we catch ourselves frantically trying to achieve too much in too little time—sitting solidly and watching your breath for a few seconds will help.
At first, people may find this idea odd or frightening. They fear that by focusing on one task at a time, they’ll forget the other things, be late, or seem slow and stupid to others. They may fear they can’t give instant responses.
Acton says people don’t lose track of time, become forgetful or seem slow when they are centered. Conversely, they are more fully aware and efficient when giving their full attention to someone or something.
Step 2. Structure Your Time
Getting a handle on overload means taking charge of your day, according to Acton. Scheduling time for e-mails, projects, meetings and even emergencies is important. It takes discipline to stick to a schedule when sudden urgent-sounding demands clamour for your time.
To do this you must identify your priorities. Figure out what is urgent and what is not. Talk to people about how their deadlines can be met in a timely, not rushed fashion. Be aware of how you spend your time and how others spend it for you. If you or other people are disorganized, your time is being wasted. Start to manage meetings and phone calls-set a time, inquire about the agenda. Ask to make one if it hasn’t been drawn up.
It is easy to get in the habit of rushing to meet demands as they arise or to procrastinate on large projects.
The trick is handling your – and others’ – expectations about what you do with your time. If you have trouble setting boundaries that you’re not available for awhile, or if you can’t let the voicemail get the phone, you’ll have trouble managing priorities.
Acton suggests that people feel comfortable being assertive in the workplace and be willing to talk to their boss about managing priorities. This is particularly difficult if the company is setting service goals that are hard to attain. If you are having trouble getting back to customers in the time required, talk about the issue with your boss.
Acton says, “This may not take a single conversation, you may need to gather data to present a business case to your boss about customer needs. It could take months to make a shift in policy so patience is important.”
Being overloaded at work can be an organizational issue that requires company-wide solutions. But it’s a personal one too. Finding ways to attend to one task at a time and structure your time assertively won’t hurt and is important in the long term.
Bob Acton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. BCHRMA, can be contacted through Carol Hama, Director of Professional Development and Services, email@example.com
Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.