There’s a technique I use to get blocks of work done well. I evolved this technique as one of a host of survival mechanisms over the past few years in response to losing more and more time to IFS – Information Fatigue Syndrome. If you read blogs (and you obviously do), surf sites, scan RSS feeds and get tons of email you know IFS – you just don’t know it by name.

The symptoms of Information Fatigue Syndrome include “paralysis of analytical capacity”, “a hyper-aroused psychological condition”, and “anxiety and self-doubt”, leading to “foolish decisions and flawed conclusions”. It is a problem which the report argues particularly affects the group called knowledge workers whose jobs mainly involve dealing with and processing information.

Over eleven years ago, The Reuters News Agency commissioned a study: “Dying for Information: An Investigation Into the Effects of Information Overload in the USA and Worldwide.” 1,300 managers in UK, USA, Hong Kong and Singapore participated in focus groups. At that time, few managers would admit they had succumbed to IFS – it was always some other manager they knew who’d let themselves catch this social disease. The study’s conclusions?

  • Two out of three respondents associated information overload with tension with colleagues and loss of job satisfaction.
  • 42% attributed ill-health to this stress.
  • 61% said that they have to cancel social activities as a result of information overload
  • 60% that they are frequently too tired for leisure activities
  • People can no longer develop effective personal strategies for managing information. Faced with an onslaught of information and information channels, they have become unable to develop simple routines for managing information.(emphasis mine)

Now this study was done in 1996 – kind of like studying AIDS in the early 80s, before AIDS killed 25 million people and devastated the lives of another 39 million to date. The malady that used to be confined to the ranks of a tiny percentage of the population – managers and the like – now affects all of us.

So here’s technique #1 I’ve evolved to beat IFS: Framing. I build a mental frame around a block of two to three hours. Here’s what the four sides of that frame consist of:

  • Preparing to Flow. Flow is the opposite of Information Fatigue. You get so focused on some one thing that everything else fades into the background, time flies, you get some real work done. I prepare to flow by pulling out my “pre-flight” checklist, working through the physical and mental cues that get me mentally relaxed and prepared.
  • Turn off email, your browser and all telephones. I know, I know: it seems somehow indecent, unnatural, unnerving and scary to deliberately cut yourself off (What if something happens? What if there’s another 9/11?). But the fact remains: you can’t flow with a stream of interruptions breaking your concentration.
  • Get physically comfortable. Minor irritations like a chair with arms too low or high, the room being too hot or cold will also break your concentration.
  • Know the Desired Outcome, but don’t focus on the results. On one hand you want to know what you hope to accomplish with your time, but on the other, you don’t want to get so focused on that that you stress out.

Put in a nutshell, by framing important work you can neutralize Information Fatigue long enough to get something substantial done. And knowing how to do that is very, very useful in this age of Information Overload.

Bob Walsh writes, codes, podcasts and blogs about different aspects of the digital lifestyle at ToDoOrElse, MyMicroISV and Clear Blogging. His second book, Clear Blogging, is now available at Amazon and elsewhere.

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