​Information Overload: Staying Afloat Amidst a Tidal Wave of E-mails

By Kerry Smith | May 13, 2014



Thanks to the surge in digital and mobile technology, information overload is a common affliction plaguing professionals these days.

In his 1970 book “Future Shock,” Alvin Toffler heightened awareness of the term information overload. Information glut, data smog, infobesity and even infoxication have also been terms to describe the deluge of information that’s pelting our brains day in and day out.

A 1997 study that surveyed executives of Fortune 1000 companies found that half of them were disrupted an average of six times per hour by the e-mails they received. That’s an incredibly low statistic compared to the number of electronic messages we receive today, nearly two decades later.

In fact, according to technology market research firm The Radicati Group Inc., e-mail remains the communication channel of choice for companies today. Radicati’s April 2013 survey reported that business e-mail accounts total 929 million inboxes. This figure – which represents roughly 26 percent of all e-mails sent and received worldwide annually – is expected to grow at a rate of about five percent over the next three years to reach over 1.1 billion business e-mail accounts by the end of 2017. Last year business people sent and received an average of about 100 billion e-mails daily (out of 182 billion transmitted worldwide).

No wonder many of us feel overwhelmed. This isn’t even taking into account instant messaging, social media posts and messages and the good-old-fashioned voicemail message.

Being able to navigate our information inundation environment today is an electronic obstacle course for all of us. Cutting through the crap – the irrelevant info – is an enviable talent. Creatively and effectively delivering our messages in the way the client or prospective client wants to receive them is an art.

On the sending end, we’ve got to know our recipient well enough to choose the communications channel that will reach him or her most effectively. It’s not just a matter of our message being read or heard; in the world of infobesity, it’s an outright gladiator-level competition in which the best communicators win. Succinct subject lines, perfect spelling and eye-catching content rules the day. Most of us can’t possibly read, digest and reply to it all.

On the receiving end, we’re tasked with culling relevant messages from the herd of stray information, making sense of it in real time and making critical decisions based upon its validity. Remaining in the driver’s seat of our inbox rather than just being along for the ride is essential.

Remember the old-school management advice to touch each piece of paper only once? In the world of information overload, we need to be practicing that same principle with our e-mails. Act on it, file it, delegate it to someone else or delete it. No “pending” folder allowed. Schedule a specific time slot each business day to initiate, read and respond to e-mails. And whenever possible, pick up the phone, mail a handwritten note or walk the trip across to your colleague’s desk to communicate. You’ll stand out from the pack in an environment of data smog where too many of us are defaulting to electronic smoke signals.

Kerry Smith is principal of Informationworks, Inc., aninformation and research agency serving businesses and individuals throughout the Midwest from Edwardsville. A member of the Association of Independent Information Professionals, she can be reached atkerry@informationworks.org or 618.225.2253.

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