Information Overload

Patricia Fripp Interviews Jeff Davidson for Western Association on Living at a Comfortable Pace in a Sped-Up Society

Information overload… as an association executive, your in-bin may be choking you. Are you chasing the clock too frequently? Could you use more breathing space in your life? We spoke with Jeff Davidson of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a full-time professional speaker and author of Breathing Space: Living and Working at a Comfortable Pace in a Sped-Up Society.

PF: Jeff, in your book, Breathing Space, you talk about hanging on to too much. Give us an example.

JD: If I visit the typical association office, and I look at the desktop, file cabinet, drawers and shelves, I’m likely to see clutter. Countless executives hang onto an excessive amount of materials, and they consider their stockpiles valuable. They don’t want to throw anything away because they think the second it gets tossed is when it will become handy. Nearly everyone feels that way.

The expressions “information overload” and “information society” are no longer future predictions. There are 1,000 books or more published on an average day. That’s over 365,000 or more a year. In addition, add newspapers, magazines, television programs, memos, press releases, films, special reports, pamphlets, VCR movies, and cable TV, and it quickly becomes clear that the concept of keeping up with the whole world is illusory.

Often before going to work, executives try to read The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, thinking they’ll get caught up. The avalanche of information in today’s newspapers simply bogs people down when they should be preparing for a productive day at work.

PF: But doesn’t the information highway make it possible to keep up?

JD: There is no “keeping up.” The sooner people realize that they cannot keep up, the better their lives will be, the more comfortable they’ll feel, and the better they’ll sleep. Even their relationships with their kids will improve. Everything will get better as soon as Americans realize that keeping up is unrealistic. And even if someone could, he or she would never win any awards for keeping up. Ten years ago, people may have heard that in the near future we would have paperless offices. Surprise: it’s just the reverse. In some respects, we’ve saved paper.

For instance, we don’t type out the letter. We fix it on the screen and then we print it. The problem is that new technology doesn’t replace, it merely follows. It just piles up. Television was expected to replace radio, and VCR movies were to stifle the big screen. Yet, nothing has replaced anything preceding it. Currently, many people own fax machines, but most businesspeople did not have them four years ago. Four years from now, association executives and meeting planners will be using new gadgets that no one can name at present. And it’s going to create more paper, too. The reality is that our society, as it progresses, is going to encounter more paper, not less. The sooner people realize that the glut is never going to stop and is only going to get worse, the sooner they begin to acquire the right mindset to gain and keep control.

PF: So the first step is, in part, a realization. What else should we be aware of?

JD: A 55-foot high stack! In this society everyone faces a mountain of paper each year, a trend that doesn’t surface in Japan, Great Britain, Russia or China. The typical working adult in America consumes a 55-foot high stack of 8-1/2 x 11 paper per year. In Japan, the amount is not even half of that; in England it’s only a third.

In the rest of the industrialized countries, the stack is still shorter. We are inundating each other with paper. One reason for the overglut is that, being in a country with the world’s lowest postal rates, we have created a society in which direct mailers can afford to fail 98 percent of the time. The 98 percent on the receiving end does not respond to direct mail, but profits are made even when only 2 percent sends in an order. Americans are papering each other to death, and strategies to decrease the flow are in order. Specifically, mailers need to target their mail to certain worthy candidates rather than sending a sea of paper randomly.

PF: What about the paper that isn’t mail? Why are our desktops suffocating with records and documents?

JD: We have cascades of memos and regulation books and registrations all over the business world. For instance, those who have bought real estate properties lately know there are more forms to deal with than there were a few years ago. There are simply more things to sign. The reason for the ballooning complexity is that people are afraid of change, and in effect, they try to document what’s going on.

More timesheets, more invoices, more billing — unless some of the administrative procedures can be dropped, society will drown in its own paperwork.

It’s time to follow the ruthless rules of reality, which say most of the paper that passes in front of you must be tossed immediately. Most paper has no real bearing on your life, and even if it does, you can’t get to it all at a comfortable speed. People can only treat a finite number of papers each week without becoming careless, so scrap all the “extras” that compete for your valuable time. It’s going to get worse as narrow-casting and more focused targeting make for more publications and more communications. Guttenberg gave the western world the printing press, and now Xerox, IBM, and Canon have made all people publishers. In all, it’s simple: technology’s additions, people’s fear of change, and the tremendous amount of information in the world are causing an “overglut,” an unnecessary complexity.

PF: How can we make changes to deal with this “overglut?”

JD: Let’s turn to some general principles. First, the 80-20 rule. One can apply the 80-20 rule to many facets of life. To stay on the subject, I’ll discuss it with regard to paper. Researchers followed the paper trail of many people in offices and large organizations, marking papers that went into their filing cabinets.

Fully 80 percent of the pieces of paper that the professionals had filed were never used again — 80 percent! Even if in one individual’s case the percentage of untouched paper were lower, one should still realize that he or she is carrying a lot of useless paper on file. The solution: you’ve got to pare it down.

Somebody always says to me, “Jeff, that’s fine. It sounds nice and I’d like to follow your advice, but you don’t know my business. You don’t know my field, and you don’t know my boss. You really just don’t know me.” If people find it difficult to throw away paper, they should store it in a big box marked “Check again in September.” Nevertheless, the material should be out of the office and out of sight. Another suggestion is to rip off the title page, phone number page, address page or key page that says where all the papers can be found again quickly, and collect those in a notebook. The notebook can hide on a shelf, but to keep in on the desk is to waste precious space. Edwin Bliss wrote an interesting book called Getting Things Done. In the book, he uses a wonderful phrase: “When in doubt, throw it out.” The advice should be tattooed onto people in a society who overglut themselves until they can’t see the desktop under their paper. As workers in the corporate world, we do it to each other.

PF: Jeff, I have too much to even look through to see whether or not it’s disposable. How can we avoid hours of backtracking?

JD: Managing the beforehand — an extremely important concept. I’ll illustrate managing the beforehand in contrast to managing the aftermath. First, the aftermath is the result of a lack of vision. In life, it might be a drawer cluttered with years of old bank receipts or a garage jammed with recreational items. The aftermath is very difficult to manage and should always be avoided. Of course, the way to dodge the aftermath is to manage the beforehand.

The beforehand is a plan for the future with accurate foresight. To be accurate, one would have to acknowledge the reality that America is a media-driven, information society. The information showers on us every day, and we can deduce that there’s a lot more coming. So, people ought to clear their file cabinets, leaving them at least 20 percent vacant. That is to say, manage the beforehand in order to deal with the overflow. People can apply the technique to the drawers in their desks, their supply closets, their glove compartments, and their clothes closets at home. If people are too busy to manage the beforehand, they will definitely be stuck managing the aftermath; there is virtually no area in between.

PF: So how do we go about managing the beforehand — where do we start?

JD: To manage the beforehand, one has to sacrifice a few hours a week, or else two hours on a Saturday morning. It doesn’t feel rewarding, because one feels as though he or she accomplishes nothing by making room for something that doesn’t yet exist. Everyone must devote a couple of hours a week to managing the information storm. In 1974, people could get away without the rule, but in 1994, I don’t believe an individual can be efficient with paperwork and effective with clients without the organizing rule. If one can delegate some of the work to somebody, fine. In general, the beforehand-manager must consider it part of his or her job, if not life.

To know whether someone is organized doesn’t take a psychic. Most people can tell by looking at someone’s desk. It’s impossible to be organized with horizontal piles on a desk. Information is not meant to be stacked, because no one can effectively deal with papers that are covered or scattered. People can use information if it’s in a filing cabinet with labeled tabs pointing upward. In the same way, one can use stacking trays and folders, provided that the tabs are in clear view. To be more organized, one should promise, “Today or tomorrow, or whenever I have the chance, I’m going to break down all the horizontal piles in my office.”

PF: That would change my routine. Do you think most people would be better off changing their whole routines?

JD: Yes, but keep in mind that the principles of deskmanship are quite general. To the cave man, life was a spear. To the gladiator, life was a chariot. To the plainsman, life was a rifle. Today, life is a desk. Because life is a desk, people must decide what they can do to make their desks more pleasant places — places that support them and help them be more productive. The first step is to follow what my book lists as the “Ten Commandments of Deskmanship.” For one, “Thou shall not treat thy desk as a filing cabinet.” The top of a desk is not a filing cabinet. The top of a desk should be a relatively clear surface.

A lot of people say, “Well, I need to leave these things out because I’m going to be working on them again tomorrow.” Still, managers should stick with the clearing the desk and filing everything. The next day, the first document to be placed on the desk is guaranteed to be the most important. That is, if someone has a job entailing work on six projects, and the projects seem to be too lengthy to finish in one day, the easiest way to deal with them is to file five of them and leave out the most important one. In this case, the person works on one at a time. No one maximizes brain productivity by flipping back and forth between activities.

More compelling is the notion that one can only think a single thought at a time. Everyone switches back and forth between thoughts in a split-second, but at one instant in time, he or she can only have one thought. The most happy, productive people in our society have the ability to focus and work on one thing at a time.

PF: As we go about getting organized, what should we be keeping in the back of our minds to make sure we don’t get off-track?

JD: An action plan for everyone is to fight the overglut. Decide what should be added to your to-do list as a result of some of the things previously discussed. It could be to buy more shelves; it could be to throw out some. It’s different for each individual. Will you go through old papers or clear the desk? Now, what might you cross off your to-do list forever? These might be recording simple data (that an employee could just as easily handle), or opening mail that is not essential to receive — rituals that were comforting when you were starting your career and now are passe. With regard to the desktop, consider what no longer belongs. Horizontal piles, previously mentioned, are a given. Next, decide what could be added. Somebody might decide to put the pens there if he or she is always reaching into the drawer.

The key is to reexamine the workplace and assess its convenience. In an age that continues to dump information in people’s laps, individuals must create a work environment that supports them. Imagine an association executive who is reading this article on a flight to New York. Although she doesn’t know it, she received more mail, more memos, and more phone messages while she was sitting at the airport before takeoff. Tomorrow there’s going to be more, and the next day there’s going to be more. It never stops. Such a scenario is typical, and without the right organization skills, people like this executive will be burdened with bundles of work upon return to the office.

PF: I’m sure you need to do more than just restructure your desktop, right?

JD: Definitely. Desk drawers need the same treatment. An individual must fill his or her desk drawers for support in hectic times. For example, the association executive might keep peanut butter cookies in drawers to save a mid-afternoon trip to the convenience store. One might keep an extra box of staples in the drawer to avoid the walk to the supply room when the stapler is empty.

The filing cabinet is also an important consideration. Not only should an organized person reserve 20 percent of the space for expected (or unexpected) additions, but he or she needs to create new files in which there is nothing yet to place. One could be titled “Check in a month.” Another could say, for example, “New property in Silver Spring.” As long as people are creating space for what’s coming, it doesn’t matter what the files are titled. Possible candidates for titles include any known avenues that will be important later in a career. The important thing to realize is that, in a society where information turns over so quickly, people’s files and the way those people receive information need to keep pace. To the degree that one clears and keeps clear space in his or her life, he or she will have a greater perception of control and a freedom from having to chase the clock. Of course, the hands of the clock won’t slow down to parallel this feeling of control, but the feeling of being in control is just that — a feeling and it’s the most powerful feeling of all!

Jeff Davidson, MBA, CMC, is a popular speaker; and the award-winning author of many books, including Breathing Space: Living and Working at a Comfortable Pace in a Sped-up Society. For a complete resource list including books, and video, visit BSI’s website