Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Stop the Insanity: How To Crush Communication Overload

Tina Roth Eisenberg of Swiss Miss recently declared that she had reached a personal communication crisis: “Too many channels. Too many messages. Too much noise. Too much guilt… The world sends me tweets, direct messages, texts, chats with me on skype, sends me Facebook emails (!) and actual mail and also calls me… Responding on all these channels is a full time job, extremely distracting and exhausting. I feel constantly behind.”

Amen, Swiss Miss. I doubt I know a single person who can’t relate. Communication overload is an all-too-familiar sentiment in the 21st century. We feel anxious, we feel overburdened, and, most of all, we feel overwhelmed. If we could spend all day just responding to the incoming messages we receive, when does the REAL WORK get done? How can we find enough time in the day?Complaints about “information overload” date back as far as the invention of the Gutenberg press (“What are we supposed to do with all these books?!”), and we’re experiencing similar anxiety in the face of a wave of new devices and social media tools. While it may be natural to take a “poor me!” approach to communication overload, it’s foolish to pretend our own output doesn’t play a huge role in what comes back to us.

As a recent Boston Globe piece points out, it takes two to tango:

A new technology does not act alone, after all, but in concert with our ambitions for it. Overload has long been fueled by our own enthusiasm — the enthusiasm for accumulating and sharing knowledge and information, and also for experimenting with new forms of organizing and presenting it.

We’ll interrupt dinner to send a “quick email” on our phones, check into Foursquare as we settle in for a beer at the local bar, or tweet a picture of a memorable experience as it’s happening. We gorge ourselves on communication in the now. Then, later we complain about our overflowing inboxes as if there were no connection.

It’s time to take responsibility for our communications. And I don’t mean “take responsibility” in the sense of taking on another distasteful chore, I mean “take responsibility” as a means of declaring your power over your communications. As Stephen Covey uses it when he says, “Look at the word responsibility – “response-ability” – the ability to choose your response.”

Whenever someone sends us a message, we always have a choice. Do we respond? And if so, how? Below are a few tips on sorting out the IFs and the HOWs of responding:

Step 1: Define your rules of engagement.

Every message is not created equal. To separate the wheat from the chaffe, you need to create a set of communication “rules” that relate to your objectives. How many hours are you willing to spend responding to emails and social media messages? Who are the colleagues, clients, and contacts that you need to take care of to move your business forward?

Anything can be a rule: They can be time-based, situation-based, contact-based. For instance, one of my time-based rules is that I don’t respond to emails before 12pm when I’m focused on writing. A situation-based rule could be that I will not respond (beyond a simple request for clarification) to any email that does not have a clearly articulated, actionable request. A contact-based rule would be that I respond to my in-office colleagues as a top priority above everyone else.

The main goal is you have some criteria for swiftly deciding whether or not to respond to a message; and if you plan to respond, how quickly must it be?

Every message is not created equal.

Step 2: Organize a system to execute on your rules.

Maybe you already have a good idea of who is important in your communication hierarchy. Most of us do. But where we often fall down on the job is doing the organizational grunt work to facilitate the execution of those rules. What does that mean? It means setting up your Gmail, your Twitter, your Facebook, your LinkedIn, and so on in such a way that you have to do as little work as possible to get to the “good” or “valuable” messages.There are many, many ways to do this – it just depends on what works for you. For email, I use Gmail’s “priority inbox” because it’s a no-brainer to setup and it smartly bubbles up more “urgent” messages – those from key contacts – to the top of my screen, while shunting less important messages (e.g. subscription-based emails, auto-notifications, etc) below the fold. In this great HBR post, Alexandra Samuel describes how to configure your Twitter account for maximum efficiency and value. Or maybe you want to consolidate all of your social media updates into a single digest email with NutshellMail? Lifehacker can tell you how.

Where we often fall down on the job is doing the organizational grunt work.

Step 3: Share your rules and set expectations.

With new communication channels coming online every day, there’s no great baseline for communication etiquette right now. And worse: There’s not going to be any time soon. Given this situation, our greatest weapon is setting expectations. One of the best ways to do this is by re-thinking how (and where) you share your contact information.Let’s take Study Hacks author Cal Newport as an example. Here’s his About page. First, rather than just give a contact email, Cal clarifies how he communicates (e.g. very judiciously). Second, he parses out the different channels for inquiries (one for advice, one for opportunities, and one for advertising); behind the scenes, he no doubt has different priorities for how he checks these email accounts. Thirdly, he includes a wishlist for the types of opportunities he’s interested in.

Our greatest weapon is setting expectations.

So, when I emailed Cal to ask if he wanted to contribute to 99U, my expectations were set. He didn’t have anything on his opportunities list about wanting to guest blog, so there wouldn’t have been any hard feelings if I’d never heard a peep. Then, when he did respond, I was thrilled.Of course, your contact page is not the only opportunity for setting expectations. In your office, you can set expectations with your colleagues by “over-sharing” on your meeting calendar. Planning to devote tomorrow morning to 3 hours of deep thinking about the future of the business? Put it on your calendar. Now everyone knows what you’re doing behind that closed door, and they’ll be less likely to interrupt you.

Step 4: Actively prune your communication channels.

A communication channel can be anything from an email list subscription to your Twitter profile to your new Spotify account. Basically anything that has your contact info and might be sending you updates. It’s great to experiment with new social media platforms as they come online to see if they’re right for you. At the same time, you should be constantly pruning your “stable” of profiles. Never read your Daily Candy emails anymore? Unsubscribe. Checked in a few times on Foursquare but couldn’t stick with it? Delete that profile.

To ensure that the influx of messages is never too great, we have to be constantly assessing which channels are providing meaningful value in our lives and in our work. If there’s no value, it’s just a time and attention suck that we need to get rid of. What’s more, it doesn’t do your business or your reputation any good to have outdated profiles floating around in cyberspace!

***

As Seth Godin wrote recently, “We don’t need more time, we just need to decide.” This is as true for managing our communications as it is for any other situation. To stop the insanity, we have only to make some hard decisions – decisions about who, when, what, where, and how we respond.

What’s Your Approach?

How do you keep the communications craziness manageable? Share your tips and tricks in the comments.

Jocelyn K. Glei

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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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