When is Information Informative?


By Odette Pollar,

Every couple of months there seems to be a new revolutionary product. And the promises are always the same. It will solve all your woes by making information handling easier, quicker, better, faster. Between your e-mail, voice mail, cell phone, pager, telephone, fax, and the web, how do you actually spend your days? Is the critical information that you need really at your fingertips?

As streams of data come at us from more and more sources, many of us are understanding, not to mention learning, less than ever before. According to the book, Managing Information Overload by Lynn Lively, there is a way to deal with the glut. All information is not created equal.

She identifies ideal information as that which meets five criteria:

  1. It must be current. Outdated data and old concepts are not useful to you. That is one reason that ancient "to read" piles are probably useless.
  2. It must be sufficient. Not complete. An insistence on complete information can delay decisions, resulting in missed opportunities. There is always more data that can be unearthed. There must be enough for you to make a well-reasoned decision or understand a concept, but not enough for you to write a master's thesis.
  3. Useful information must be essential. Look for core, critical material that without which nothing else makes sense.
  4. It must be reliable and accurate. Now with the Internet and e-mail, misinformation moves around the globe much faster. A recent fun story circulated about a commencement speech before the graduating class at Harvard. It was attributed to Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. who, when asked had never made the presentation.
  5. Information must be verifiable. Question what you hear. We are not necessarily talking about rigorous scientific standards but it needs to be confirmed. Take the commonly repeated statement attributed to Albert Einstein that we only use 10% of our brain. According to Alice Calaprice, Editor of The Quotable Einstein and The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, she has never come across that quote-nor any other that would suggest Einstein believed a large portion of our brain goes unused.

Sorting Strategies

  1. Accept that you can't know everything. Resist the temptation to respond to all of what comes your way--you simply can't. Those who do spend their entire days dealing with the phone, the fax, and e-mail, thereby relegating their important work to after-hours. The 80-hour work week thrives. You must set priorities, reevaluate assumptions about what work processes are truly critical and redesign procedures for greater effectiveness. It is not quantity of information that matters as much as quality and usefulness.
  2. Hone and refine. Zero in on your interests and narrow your focus by putting yourself on a data diet. Less can be more. If everything is interesting, how can you absorb much of anything?
  3. Screen out the inessential. Each fact cannot be as salient as another. Limit some of the information you receive. Cut the unnecessary by removing yourself from lists that provide streams of data but very little consistently helpful information.
  4. Make a distinction between raw data and useful information. Factoids of information probably do not stick with you very long. Think about all of those newsletters that give you the secrets of business success in 100 words or less. Really? After you read them, do you remember anything? Do not confuse random bits and pieces of information with data that builds on what you currently know and strengthens your knowledge and wisdom.
  5. Consider timeliness. Be ruthless about what you retain and for how long. Will you use it again in the next three months? If not toss it. There will be a revision or update by then anyway.

Ultimately, information is only useful if you can access it. A huge stack of unfiled items, magazines and books to read, is useless. It is better to subscribe to fewer publications and read them when they arrive than to subscribe to many and have a reading stack that is aging faster than you are. Here is a sanity tip. Rather than attempt to catch up on your backlog of reading, concentrate on making changes that increase your control and focus on staying current from this point forward.

Odette Pollar is a nationally known speaker, author, and consultant. President of the management consulting firm, Smart Ways to Work based in Oakland, CA, her most recent book is Surviving Information Overload. Email to share your comments, questions and suggestions: odette@SmartWaysToWork.com. Visit us at: www.smartwaystowork.com call: 1-800-599-8463.

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