Information Overload – Strategies to Cope with and Organize Information
As a manager and an engineer, I am constantly bombarded with information. This happens to all of us, and only seems to be increasing. The days where I sat in a server room with no interruptions are gone. Since there is no turning back here, I think it’s important for everyone to consider a strategy to cope with an organize information. I personally think the key to handling this massive amount of information is to develop a strategy for dealing with the information based on its priority and having a system that focuses you on going back through the information based on its priority.
As an engineer, if you stop to deal with every bit of information that comes in, you aren’t able to focus on your work. I think that concept further dovetails into considering how engineers should be contacted and communicated with so that they can mentally and physical organize and categorize information effectively. I’ll outline that below with some of my thoughts.
High Priority Contact – If an engineer needs to be contacted and a response is required quickly, the best method of contact is likely either via a phone call or a text. There needs to be a notification that alerts the engineer that something of immediate importance has come in. When working on systems, engineers often lack access to external email, so that isn’t a reliable method of reaching them. Cell coverage can occasionally present issues here but calls or text backed up by and email are the best options. As an engineer, you need to evaluate the message and respond appropriately. If there is follow up activity needed, be sure to record that in your system for storing information and reminders. More on that below.
Low Priority Contact – Email is the perfect method to contact an engineer for something that needs a follow up but isn’t urgent. The email sender should not expect the engineer to be monitoring email continuously nor should an engineer be constantly monitoring their email as that can be highly inefficient. As an engineer, it’s good to develop a schedule for checking email. I personally try to do that no more than once an hour when working a project. There are some quick ways to deal with email information that you don’t need to handle immediately. More below.
Walk by Contact – Otherwise known as a ‘drive by.’ This is typically not a good way to contact an engineer. Typically, the engineer has other things on their mind and it’s very easy for them to lose track of the request by the time they get back to their computer. I personally always try to ask people to send me an email so that I will have all the information and can prioritize the request.
Time Cards – This isn’t a type of contact per se, but it is significant and can be a great way to categorize and store information. There are really two primary situations here. The first is when the engineer is working a project and all or most of the time for the day will be allocated to a single time card. In this situation, you can usually create the time card at the end of the day and walk through the key activities from memory very quickly. The second situation is when you are doing multiple things throughout the course of the day. If you are going to need to submit multiple time cards, trying to do that from memory isn’t likely to work very well or be productive. If you are not super busy, the best option is to create a timecard after each event. If that doesn’t work because you are jumping around or working on events off and on throughout the day, it is really important to note the times and activities in your organization system which will make it very easy to build timecards at the end of the day.
So, those are some of the key things that can cause an engineer to become overloaded and less productive than they could be. Additionally, there are as many organization and time management applications out there as there are stars in the sky (well maybe not quite that many.) The key is finding something that works and stick with it. I’ll share what I do and maybe that will be a helpful place to start thinking.
When I receive information, I make an immediate decision what to do with it. I think that’s very important. Don’t leave things in your inbox unread. Email isn’t a great organizational system. I use two approaches. If the information is phone or text information, or when I really only need part of an email, I add a note about it. I use Evernote for this. One Note has very similar features and I think that’s just a matter of preference. I have a notebook for each customer and use tags for the project. The search engines work very well. When I need all, or most of an email, I forward that email to Evernote. You can use @ to send it to the correct notebook. I find that very useful. This allows me to quickly move the information to a place where I can review and search it easily.
That’s only part of the battle though. The next thing I have to do is track the tasks that I need to complete and their priorities. I’ve played around with a lot of products to do this and they simply didn’t work for me. However, they might work for you though so I encourage you to try a few out. I simply build a note at the beginning of the week and list the tasks for the week. I add to and remove from this note as I work through the week. I check this at the beginning and end of the day, or more frequently depending on my week. This works for me, but it might not work for you. I also use this same list to track time. There are times where I go from call to call to project to call, and don’t have much breathing room. Since I have the tasks listed already, I just need to note the time so that I can create my timecards at the end of the day. I find this to be an easy way to track things.
The way I handle organization isn’t the key element here. As long as you have a system that works, you are in good shape. I think there are some key points though:
- Use a system you are comfortable with and build a routine that keeps you moving and tracking information.
- Deal with information when you review it. Don’t wait and come back to it.
- Don’t allow emails to bog you down. Plan for time to review them.
- Track your time card information in a way that makes it accurate and easy to create time entries. You can waste a huge amount of time doing this if you have to go back and think through the things you did over the course of the day.
- Make sure your system keeps you reviewing and updating your data and tasks. Recording all of the information doesn’t do you any good if it isn’t prioritized and kept in a manner that reminds you of when things are due.
I’ve found that organizing things this way doesn’t take a lot of additional time and make you much more efficient. Don’t avoid organization and spend wasted time searching through emails and racking your memory. Organization takes less time in the long run than the other alternative. You’ll also be more on top of things and have more successful projects. Don’t be afraid to play with different tools and figure out what works for you. The tolls should be easy to work with, expedient, and keep you focused. Everyone will have a different approach. Not having an approach is a difficult way to work in the world of information overload.
Curtis brings over 25 years of collaboration experience to ABS. As the Collaboration Team Manager, Curtis works to ensure that ABS is consistently providing the latest collaboration technology and support to ABS clients.