Information overload: why you should switch off to get ahead

Information overload: why you should switch off to get aheadRunning your own business can be a difficult balancing act. A recent survey by Pitney Bowes found that small business owners are taking multi-tasking to the extreme. On average, business owners juggle seven roles on a daily basis, including tasks such as office repairs and buying stationery as well as core business activities.

On top of that, most business owners are struggling with information overload and chronic levels of interruption. According to research by Varonis, 78% of us receive up to 100 emails a day and nearly a quarter of us receive 100-500 emails every day. Not surprisingly, email overload is often cited as one of the biggest causes of workplace stress.

Switching off

In our “always on” world, our work life has extended beyond the 9-5 and the intrusion of technology has brought new distractions as well as opportunities. But the fact is that constantly checking email and social media and flitting between tasks is bad for productivity.

So how can you manage your time? Can you control the influx of messages rather than being controlled by them? Is multi-tasking the answer? Or is there a better way?

“Managing our time is harder than ever because of technology,” says Anna Davis - Achieve BalanceAnna Davis (right). Anna runs Achieve Balance, helping business owners get more done in the working day. “Some people are addicted to technology — they hyperventilate when I ask them to turn off their iPhone.”

But turning things off — your email, your phone, your web browser — is the only way to get things done, says Anna.

“Carving out focus hours is critical. The brain is like a computer and different tasks require different amounts of RAM. When you get distracted, it takes a few minutes to get back to the task afterwards. When you need to concentrate, you should switch everything off — including email and other ‘pingers’— and let others know not to disturb you.”

But it’s easy to let these intrusions call the shots. They can even be welcome distractions when you’ve got a daunting task ahead of you.

“Procrastination is a problem for everyone,” says Anna. “But whatever you are avoiding is often the very thing you should be doing. The hardest part is getting started. Scheduling focus hours in your diary is imperative to ensure they happen.”

Face your demons

One way to get the most difficult tasks out of the way is to tackle them first thing — before you’ve even looked at the morning emails.

Another approach is to break up daunting tasks into bite-sized pieces. “The key is to take small steps and set realistic targets,” says Anna. “If you give yourself just 20 minutes to do something, it’s amazing what you can achieve. Break each hour into three 20-minute chunks for three different tasks and use a timer to keep you focused.”

Where does the time go?

Many people find they lose track of time during the working day. Anna says: “Being busy is very different from being productive. With my clients I identify ‘time sinks’ — activities that eat up time, such as web surfing and social media. Two hours a day on social media is too much. It’s better to allow 20 minutes twice a day and do what you can in that time.”

Another challenge for small business owners can be letting go — they have got used to doing everything themselves and the idea of delegating doesn’t appeal. But spending your valuable time on activities that aren’t your main area of expertise is a false economy.

“Find others to do tasks you hate or which you are not very good at and which are taking you away from your core business,” advises Anna. “There are so many options for delegating today, including virtual assistants you can pay by the hour. And if you are really short of cash, do swaps — give your expertise to someone in exchange for their help.

Ten ways to free up more time

  1. Turn off your phone and email at times.
  2. Clear the clutter in your office and on your computer.
  3. Use online tools to manage your workload.
  4. Prioritise core business activities.
  5. Do one thing at a time.
  6. Tackle things you have been putting off.
  7. Do smaller tasks in batches.
  8. Do the difficult tasks at a time of day when you are most alert.
  9. Make a realistic daily to-do list.
  10. Delegate and outsource.

Finally, says Anna, it’s vital to look after number one. “You are your business,” she says. “If you break so does the business.”

Take control of your inbox

How full is your inbox? According to Varonis, 10% of workers now have more than 10,000 emails in their inbox. But what’s the best way to manage emails? And how can you clear your inbox?

  1. Start by shifting all emails that are more than two months old into a folder marked with the date. If you need to find one, you’ll know where it is.
  2. Now set up a simple filing system that works for you. Create folders where you can keep relevant emails together. This could include some work-related folders as well as one for personal emails. The trick, though, is to only create a few so that it’s obvious where they belong — and you can easily find them again.
  3. Now deal with your inbox. Go through your recent emails and:
    • put meeting dates in your diary;
    • add contacts to your address book;
    • remove attachments (and file them on your computer);
    • cut and paste important information into documents;
    • add tasks to your to do list.
  4. You should now be able to move the vast majority of your emails into folders. Those that remain should be those that you have yet to reply to. In other words, the emails in your inbox become a de facto to-do list.
  5. From now on, think of every email as a task. You’ll find that many of your emails can be shifted almost immediately. By only leaving those that require a response, you’ll be able to keep on top of your inbox.
  6. Other tips include making sure you regularly unsubscribe to email newsletters you don’t want to receive and not being afraid to delete the odd insignificant email — you don’t actually have to keep them all!

Time spent on social media

Research conducted by Vertical Response in 2012 found:

  • 43% spend six or more hours per week on social media for their business;
  • 18% spend 11 or more hours per week;
  • one third post on social media every day;
  • one third said they’d rather spend less time on social media.

You can see more results in this infographic.

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