Thursday, June 28, 2012

Too Much Information

I'm in the mood to lighten things up a bit, but at the same time, I'm also in the mood to state what is probably a blinding flash of the obvious: I am a willing victim in the "too much information" reality robbing my effective attention span.

The Police song was released on the "Ghost in the Machine" album in 1981. Sting, Andy and Stewart felt their lives were, to creatively borrow a title of another band's Greatest Hits collection, "suffering from 'A Slight Case of Overbombing'" (I know of a few readers who will get that reference ;) ).  The amazing thing is, I wonder how they would feel about the world that has come about in the 31 years since this was originally released!

I used to pride myself as one who could say "you only have to tell me something once, and it will get done." In a simpler time, that was entirely true, and I prided myself on being able to do exactly that. I also used to pride myself on having a photographic memory. Sadly, I no longer can make either of those claims. The reason? With the sheer number and volume of things that vie for my attention, it's impossible to keep everything going on in my head at the same time. Once upon a time, I could do that. I genuinely can't any longer.

I've gone on the record in the past to say that multi-tasking in the human sense is a total myth, and I believe that to be the case more so now than I ever did before. Anyone who claims they can "multi-task" is full of it. They can ineffectively split their attention at a variety of points, and they can focus and defocus on things that matter to them. I'll accept that listening to well traveled and fully consumed music while working is a sort of multi-tasking (personally, I just consider it mono-tasking with a soundtrack), but the idea that you can code and follow a discussion on Twitter, or solve a high order problem while managing your email inbox, not so much.

There are some horible habits that I, try as I might, struggle with. I made a point a few months ago to do my best to live "Inbox Zero", and for several weeks, I succeeded. However, over time, older habits crept in, specifically the habit of "I can't deal with that right now, but I'll get back to it later when I have more time to deal with it". The dirty secret is "we don't have more time later". Any set of time we choose to focus on something is a conscious choice to not focus on something else. Time can't be banked, and unless we make tremendous strides to knock through a backlog of issues, that mythical "time later when things are not so hectic" is not likely to appear.

There are several techniques I use to effectively force myself to dig into my task list and back log of "Too Much Information". Again, I share these not because I'm some time management guru, but because I'm a wayward time management schlub just like so many others out there. Thus, here's some thoughts on how to dig out of the information rubble that surounds you.

Find Out When Your Circadian Rhythm Works Best: If you have noticed that you have high points and low points when your attention span and brain seem to be acting in an overclocked fashion, and some times you just feel like you want to pass out or veg, this is your circadian rhythm at work. More to the point, it's getting tuned into your dips and valleys and when your brain will fire the best. I'm not sure that I know when this hapened, but I discovered about ten years ago that my most productive cycle is as follows:

- 4:00 AM - 7:00 AM - Best time for solving Deep Problems or Studying hard Topics 
- 7:00 AM - 10:00 AM - High energy for communication and interpresonal issues 
- 10:00 AM - 1:00 PM - Best time for repetitive busywork and maintenance issues 
- 1:00 PM - 2:00 PM - Natural lull, usually when I get lunch. If the option is open, an awesome time to take a 20 minute nap. 
- 2:00 PM - 5:00 PM - 2nd Best Time for Deep Problems or Hard Topics 
- 5:00 PM - 7:00 PM - 2nd Best Time for communication/ interpersonal issues 
- 7:00 PM - 10:00 PM - Natural lull after dinner, usualy a good time for casual reading or busy work.
- 10:00 PM - 4:00 AM - Sleep (note, this often varies, and can start as early at 9:00 PM and run as late as 6:00 AM)

These are general guidelines for me, they are not absolutes. It's not like I can't tackle a big problem before lunch, but if I had my choice, I'd structure the things I do during the times I listed. When I take advantage of these rhythms, I am able to get a lot more done than if I try to shoehorn things in at less optimal times.

Make Focus Time a Game: I have stated in the past that I use tools like RescueTime and Pomodairo to set up blocks of time to see if I'm really being as productive with my time as I think I am. RescueTime is a good way to actually see where your time goes and how much of it goes where and when while you are online. Pomodairo is a little tool that lets me set up dashes of focused time and enforced breaks to step away and de-focus. It's entirely possible to "game the system" so that you feel more productive than you really are, but if you are honest with yourself, and you are willing to be a little competitive, you can get some excellent productivity gains out of these tools.

Going on a Media Diet: A lot of us may do a number of things on social sites for a variety of reasons. I make no bones about the fact that I use tools like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter as ways to keep in touch with and communicate with friends and family, but that I also use these tools to help build a brand for me and my blog. Spending time on these endeavors and effectively communicating with others is helpful, but the benefits are asymptotic; a little time with each can yield good benefits, but spending ten times as much time doesn't yield ten times as much benefit. These tools can be a great boon of interesting information, or they can be monumental time sucks. To get this under control, sometimes declaring a media diet is a great way to get control of your time and energy. Pick one service for a day, a week, whatever, and just focus on reading or interacting with that one service.

Take Advantage of "Ubiquitous Capture": This is a nebulous term, and it really comes down to "write stuff down", but how you do it and what you write down will vary from person to person. I use Dropbox and a variety of spreadsheets to store interesting links, thoughts, ideas, random events, and people's forwards of "you should check this out". I use Twitter's Favorites option regularly so that, at the end of each day, I can go back and see what I wanted to remember and not lose track of. I try my best to group and filter emails into topics and subjects and deal with them in their sphere rather than one at a time.

Do Your Best to Banish the "Mindless" From Your Activities: Have you ever noticed how often, whenever we want to get a handle on a problem (weight, money, time, exercise), the first recommendation we are given is to "write down everything you do in [Domain Sphere] for a week"? It's cliche, it's trite, it's sometimes patronizing... but it's tremendously effective. Why? It brings to the fore all of the things we do at a subconscious level. Tracking every bite of food makes you aware of how many times you get up and go to the break rooom or open your drawer to nosh on something. Writing down everything you purchase at all times makes you aware (sometimes painfully) where you are spending your money. Writing down how far you walk, how many reps you do, how much poundage you lift, how many miles you ride, makes you aware of your true activity level. Being totaly honest with yourself in RescueTime tels you where you are spending your time when you are online. All of these things have the same goal; they move you from mindless action to mindful action. Our deficiencies or under-achieving areas are often not because we are defective, but because we are not paying attention to those areas. If you really want to get a handle on a problem, focus your full attention on it for a given period. You'll be amazed what you discover.

Remember, I don't share these ideas because I think I'm great at doing this. I share them because I know I am frequently lacking in these areas. The Twelve-Step Programs first step is "the way to deal with a problem is to know/acknoledge/admit that you have a problem". It's unlikely that we can banish all distraction, or shut off the flow of too much information completely, but with a little proactive action, and realization of what works best for us, we can help tame a lot of these issues and, perhaps, significantly rein in the overbombing.
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