How thought leaders deal with information overload

The Internet is, and always has been, all about information. A big part of what most of us do depends on us being able to consume large amounts of information on a daily basis. We also need to intelligently organise and use that information to make decisions and draw conclusions.

As authors, commentators, advisors and consultants, staying current is a necessity for many of our speakers. It’s not enough for them to observe news events and trends, they have to understand what those events mean; how they impact businesses and individuals.

We've always known that the value a speaker offers through his or her work is derived, at least in part from being able to sift through the noise to identify the bigger patterns and synthesise all the incoming information into practical advice. So, although there is already a world of advice out there about how to deal with information overload, we decided to ask those on the front line exactly what is it that they do to stay on top. These are the movers and shakers renowned for their command of all that is happening and yet to happen and we figured that we were bound to get some great practical ideas that we could apply in our own searches for personal information management nirvana.

We asked six of our top speakers and thought leaders what they do to stay current and on top of what’s happening, as well as understanding what it means for businesses and individuals across the planet. If, in your line of work, it is also essential for you to be able to filter out the noise, grow your expertise and remain current and abreast of developments, here then is the advice from the top.

In this, part one of this article are pearls of wisdom from the first three speakers that we contacted. The comments of the remaining three will be published in the second part.

Alf Rehn

Alf Rehn is Professor of Innovation, Design, and Management at the University of Southern Denmark. He sits on numerous boards of directors and is a bestselling author as well as a strategic advisor for everything from hot new startups to Fortune 500-companies. As one of our most popular speakers, we emailed Alf and asked how he deals with information overload and how he stays on top. Here's his response:

I’m a sucker for productivity hacks and am one of those people who still dream of having this one, perfect tool that would make me massively productive almost out of the blue.

At the same time, I’m sensible enough to realize that there is no such thing as the perfect productivity method. Rather than trying to use a method that simply doesn’t work for me, or getting depressed about not being perfectly productive, I look for “good enough” productivity, and means by which to achieve this.

It’s important to find your methods, but it’s also important not to get too caught up in them! You should also beware of fads and fashions. Just because a productivity method is hip right now, doesn’t mean it will work for you. If you’re a notebook person, you don’t need to go all digital. If you like lists, don’t get too caught up in mind maps –and vice versa. I think the four things I’d recommend to other people is the following:

"If you try to excel in every channel and in every media, you'll go insane"

Get your channels right. If you try to excel in every channel and in every media, you’ll go insane – particularly if you’re doing it alone and not with a team. If you try to follow email, Messenger, WeChat, WhatsApp, Twitter, LinkedIn messages, SnapChat, and your phone to boot, all while trying to create content for your blog, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, you’ll become so fragmented all your productive energies will go to switching costs. Sure, there are influencers out there who seem to be able to do this, but that is with a dedicated team of 10+ people. Mere mortals like me need to pick our channels. 

I’m an email guy. Sure, it’s not fashionable, but I’ve learnt how to be productive with email. I try not to listen too much to chatter from elsewhere, and if I’m contacted on e.g. LinkedIn, I have people email me instead. This means I have one primary channel to keep tabs on when it comes to communication, and rather than trying to remember to check five channels at the same time, I focus on one. This also helps me have an overview – my email inbox is one of my core ToDo-lists. Right now, I have one email in there and that one is about writing this text. 

When it comes to social media, I focus on Twitter. That’s where I share stuff and that’s where I announce things. Sure, I dabble in LinkedIn and Instagram as well, but I make sure my focus is on Twitter and the following I’ve built up there. 

No matter what you do, you’ll be in the communication business, so decide which is your key channel, and excel at that whilst cutting out others.

Pick your tools wisely. This is in a sense a variation on the first tip, but with one important difference. We all produce things; campaigns, texts, analyses, decisions, widgets. We also all have tons of tools at our disposal, different ways in which to work. Too often I see people sticking to one thing, such as Word even though it might not at all be optimized for the way in which they really do their best work. The best tool for you won’t necessarily send you a personalized invite, so you need to go out there and look for them.

As an example, I write almost everything in a program known as Ulysses. Ulysses is like a database of texts so that rather than having a ton of documents in a folder or mailed back and forth, I have all my texts in one single file in one single program. I can skip between writing this and writing on a chapter for my next book by just clicking in the side-menu that shows all of my projects (which I can also hide when I need to focus). It works on my phone and my tablet as well, and everything is synced and in the cloud. This means I can work on whatever I feel most enthused about, even in a line at the store or on a plane, and also that I know where everything is – no hunting through folders within folders.

For someone else, that might not be helpful at all, but the point was not to market a specific program. Rather, it is to look for the program and the setup that works for you, rather than thinking everyone needs to communicate through email (even though I prefer it) and write in Word.

Remember that all productivity isn’t created equal. Every productivity guide in the world will tell you that there’s a difference between getting things done and doing the right things. You could be very effectively whittling down a to-do-list, yet not really achieve much that will have true long-term impact. Thus a lot of people will tell you to focus on the big things, not just on little achievements. I think this can be dangerous advice.

I think we should celebrate both the little wins and the big projects, and be open with how one can power the other. I often make sure to do a bunch of little, less important things at the beginning of a day. It might be emails, or paying a bill, or just finishing my Instapaper-list – any of the things most productivity guides tell you to ignore! By doing so I might not be getting my book anywhere, at least not at that moment, but what it does is that it provides me with a sense of quick wins, that I start feeling like I’m getting things done, and I can then take that momentum into e.g. writing a longer piece. Once I grow tired of doing the big thing, I switch back to smaller things, such as checking where my next talk is, making sure my travel is booked, and so on. By switching between the quick and easy and the big tasks, I keep momentum and continuously feel like I’m getting at least something done. Even if it’s just replying to a less important email.

Delegate, delegate, delegate. Ever since Tim Ferriss wrote The 4-Hour Work Week we’ve all been obsessed with getting things like a virtual PA. It is good advice to get help, be it a virtual part-time PA, a full-time PA, or a team of people who can help you. Now, this can, of course, seem like rather arrogant advice. A cheap part-time virtual PA can only help you so much, and a lot of people cannot afford to have an actual team to help them. I think the important takeaway from the delegation debate isn’t that everyone should have an assistant or several, but to think about what you need help with, and how you can turn even simpler things into delegated tasks. There are thus two sub-points to this, and I’ll try to illustrate them both in turn.

One, if you cannot justify the expense of having a full-time assistant to delegate things to, think seriously about what kind of things you most need help with, and what services might best help you delegate away things. Today you can get very good virtual assistants, but if that too seems like too big of an outlay, think about a specialized service. For instance, if your main problem is booking travel, you might look into a service like Pana, which acts as a virtual PA for travel bookings. If the thing you’d most like is having someone to dictate to, you might like to check out Cassette, which does a decent job of transcribing what you dictate to it.

Two, delegation isn’t just about getting someone else to do work for you. It can also be something as simple as moving an issue from being your problem to (momentarily) being someone else’s problem. For instance, I often make sure not to think too much about an issue raised in a mail until I have gotten all the data. I simply reply with a question for clarification, and boom, it’s off my table for a while. I’m also a big fan of delegating work to future me. I use snooze on my email (if your email client doesn’t feature a snooze option, change your client) and a wonderful service called Nudgemail, which enables me to forward emails hours, days, or even months into the future. Hey presto, it’s delegated to a future version of myself!

Sean Pillot de Chenecey

Sean Pillot de Chenecey is one of the leading cultural, social and business trends experts who has spent 15 years consulting for some of the world's biggest brands. A true expert in how consumers are acting and feeling in this day and age, Sean regularly consumes a vast amount of information to be able to stay ahead of the trends he discusses and speaks about in his keynote presentations. He had this to say on the subject:

A major issue for organisations of all varieties is to identify relevant trends on a 24/7 basis and then react to these quicker than the opposition. Therefore, a key requirement is to have a means of accessing usable & reliable data and being able to swiftly develop actionable insights as a result.

As a consultant who’s been researching cultural/social/brand trends for many years, I naturally have a wide range of research tools at my disposal; but find that leveraging the information available from leading think-tanks, agency planners and trend-forecasters alongside the international press and social-media monitoring enables the swift build-up of background info on which to base specific ‘deep-dive’ research.

That deep-dive research normally takes the form of expert interviews, ethnographic activity and desk-work, which is done on a national and/or international basis, depending on the requirements of the task in question.

Ron Kaufman

The third thought-leader that we spoke to for this week's article was Ron Kaufman, author of a New York Times best-selling book and founder of Up! Your Service. Ron is considered to be the world's foremost authority on customer service culture. For more than two decades, Ron has travelled the world helping organisations on every continent to build cultures of uplifting service. He works regularly with a successful clientele of government agencies and multinational corporations, is a columnist at Bloomberg Businessweek, has authored 15 books and has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and USA Today.

This made Ron an obvious candidate for the question: how do you keep up? We wanted to know his secret behind staying ahead and staying focused and caught up with Ron between flights. He shared these thoughts with us:

  • He goes to the gym as often as possibly - usually on a daily basis. Physical fitness plays a huge role in maintaining energy levels, concentration and stamina. He also carries and eat almonds or protein bars while travelling and avoids sugars and white starches.
  • He watches YouTube interviews with book authors of the latest bestselling business books to stay current on evolving perspectives ideas.
  • He runs his life in his email as well as his Outlook calendar.
  • He uses written notes as temporary placeholders for ideas that only become “confirmed” when in his calendar.
  • He schedules calls for anytime he is driving to or from an airport - "classic 'lost time' that can be usefully used when carefully scheduled".

In the second part of this article, we'll be sharing more tips and ideas from three more of our top speakers and thought leaders. In the meantime, if staying current and informed is essential for your job, how do you keep up to date? Share your experiences in the comments below.

0 Comments
Oct 30, 2017 By Patrick Nelson