Riding the Digital Tsunami

Turning information overload into information overdrive

Email, Blackberries, cell phones, blogs, voice mail — electronic communication connects and disconnects us.

In 2004, author Lawrence Lessig coined the term “email bankruptcy.” After he spent 80 hours in one week sorting through email that had been in his inbox since January 2002, he concluded that “without extraordinary effort,” he would never be able to catch up. So he sent out an automated message to everyone who wrote him, then deleted all the emails.

Many office workers, and most senior managers and executives, dread email. Just a few years ago, in the late ‘90s, business leaders used to freely give out their email addresses to anyone who asked because it allowed them to reduce phone calls or keep their numbers private. Now email overload has become the biggest wave of the digital tsunami.

But email is not the only digital wave overwhelming workers. Ironically, Blackberries (affectionately called “crackberries” by those who have become addicted to them), cell phones (both voice and text messaging), Facebook sites, blogs, and other electronic communications help keep us connected at all times, while subversively disconnecting us as well.

One of the leading authorities on conquering information overload is David Allen, whose 2001 book, Getting Things Done, is a guide to “the art of stress-free productivity.” Allen writes about the problem of “open loops” — uncompleted tasks, unresolved issues, and unanswered emails. His solution is to simplify by channelling all the tasks in our lives into a single “inbox.”


Most productivity or time-management experts have two basic strategies for handling large volumes of incoming mail: 1) prioritize and organize emails by moving them into sub-folders or by using inbox rules, or 2) simply delete or ignore any emails that don’t require a response.

Here’s an example of organizing emails by priority. You can either use inbox rules to move emails from specific people or with specific subject lines to sub-folders. Or if you want to manually sort your email, you can create sub-folders, or use coded labels, e.g. UR (Urgent – response required), IR (Important – response required), FR (Follow-up required); PR (phone response only), and NR (no response required — file or delete). This can help you triage your inbox so you respond the most important messages first.

The problem with inbox rules is they don’t always work as intended, and sometimes they can actually cause us to miss important messages unintentionally. And the problem with manually sorting emails by priority is that this process takes time as well. You have to at least browse a message to sort it by priority, and in the time it takes to browse some of them, you could almost skip the priority sorting and simply reply.

Here are a few information management strategies to help you save time and turn information overload into information overdrive.

If you’re a busy executive or senior manager, delegate your emails as much as possible. Ask your executive assistant to read your email, respond to easy requests, and then send more urgent or time-sensitive emails to your attention. You could even request a second company email address that is private — available only to a small, select group.

If you don’t have an assistant, and you can’t control what email gets sent to you, remember that answering email is an administrative task like managing your budget or attending meetings. Find a quiet time of day when other staff are not around (e.g. 30 minutes before the office opens or 30 minutes before most people get back from lunch), then dedicate that time to checking voicemail and sorting/responding to emails.

It’s important not to lose productive time by getting the “email twitch”: feeling the urge to check your inbox every minute or every time you hear an email notification “ping.” Blackberries are a wonderful way to access your email but should be turned off when you’re at a meeting or working on something. Same thing applies to your personal webmail accounts, e.g. gmail or hotmail. Some organizations allow employees to check their personal webmail accounts from the office, but if you’re already feeling overloaded by your email inbox at work, don’t waste your time checking your personal emails during work hours.

Another email management strategy is to undertake some “human engineering” strategies to change the way people send emails to you. You can also use your inbox rules not only to move mail into different folders, but also to create an automated message that is sent to everyone who sends you an email message. For example: “Thank you for contacting me by email. I receive a large number of communications by email each day, so I can only respond to emails by priority. If your message is of an urgent nature, please call me at XXX-XXXX or drop by my office. If I do not respond to your email immediately, please be assured that I will follow-up on it as soon as possible.”

Of course, every time someone emails you, they will receive an automated message, and these will fill up the inboxes of chronic emailers — which should reinforce why you are trying to manage your own email volumes in a productive way.

Two things about voice communications devices create information management problems:

We have too many devices. We have a home landline phone, a personal cell, an office landline, a cell phone/Blackberry, and sometimes even more.

We have too many voicemails, usually one for each of the devices mentioned above.

Make it a personal policy NOT to check your personal voicemail during the workday. At work, limit who has your business cell number to your boss, your assistant, and a few colleagues. If you have a landline, too, forward your landline to the cell phone when you’re out of the office, or vice versa when you’re in the office. Avoid having to login to several different voicemails by limiting the number of phones you use. But when you leave the office, leave your business cell and Blackberry at work if you can.

The World Wide Web is a great time-waster for employees and managers when they succumb to the temptation of browsing non-work-related sites during office hours. Well-intentioned Internet usage policies can help a bit, but instead of prohibiting such behavior, why not find ways to redirect your employees’ information explorations and exchanges into something productive? Channel your staff’s desire to express themselves by allowing them to create their own internal “homepages” profiling who they are and what they do, participate in collaborative workspaces (e.g. Sharepoint), or post to company blogs that are semi-moderated. New generations in the workforce will thrive on this, and you may find that this activity pays off in better internal communications, collaboration, and knowledge management.