Dealing with information overload is a constant theme for managers, one that was identified by management sage Peter Drucker in his 1967 classic book, The Effective Executive, Derek Dean and Caroline Webb of McKinsey & Co. note. In Rotman Magazine, the two consultants offer ways to gain control in the current business environment:
One thing at a time
Avoid multitasking, seductive as it may seem. Multitasking actually slows you, because your brain is designed to focus on one thing at a time. Multitasking hampers creativity. And it makes people anxious and addicted to the excitement of doing several things at once.
Everyone around you is probably multitasking as well, so you have a responsibility to reset the norm. The message the consultants suggest you pass on to your colleagues is: "Multitasking is not heroic; it's counterproductive."
Executives' calendars are often booked back-to-back every day. It's vital, the consultants note, to set out time to focus on the really important issues – and also to give your subordinates similar opportunity so they can move through the day without being continually disrupted by their superiors. At some point in the day, carve out "alone time" to think.
Consider the approach of Bill Gross, chief investment officer at Pacific Investment Management Co.: "I don't answer or look at any e-mails I don't want to. I don't have a cellphone. I don't have a BlackBerry. My motto is, 'I don't want to be connected; I want to be disconnected.'"
Turning everything off, the consultants recognize, will only lead to a more crowded in-box when you reconnect, so you must develop a sensible filtering strategy. "It starts with giving up the fiction that leaders need to be on top of everything, which has taken hold as information of all types has become more readily and continually accessible. Rather, plain old delegation is as important with information as it always has been with tasks," they write.
Some leaders refuse to respond to e-mails on which they have been merely "cc-ed." You may also need to educate your staff about what information deserves your limited time.
Give your brain downtime. Mr. Gross says some of his best ideas come while standing on his head and doing yoga – after about 15 minutes, the ideas flow. The consultants suggest that getting outside also helps. Or ditch the BlackBerry when you get home.
In a companion article in the magazine, creativity coach Matthew May says we fear stepping away from work to take such breaks: "It somehow feels wrong, like pre-emptive surrender … we think we may lose our momentum, and that if we take our eyes off the problem even for a second, we may lose the energy we've invested."
Mr. May encourages meditation, which many executives find helpful; working in 90-minute cycles, with a brief change of focus and scene afterward (exercising, listening to music, doodling); and daydreaming walks.
Redesign working norms
You can't win this battle alone. To avoid seeming uncommitted to the business by turning off your cellphone or taking long walks at midday, the consultants say you must encourage others to understand the payoff to the organization of a less frenzied, more focused approach.