Hacking Your Way Out of the Jungle of Overwhelm

You may not currently think of a razor-sharp machete as an essential tool for growing your business, but you might want to start.

The last thing you need is more statistics on the number of megabytes of information that thrust themselves at you each day. All you need to do is open your inbox or go through your snail mail to know that you’re in danger of being swallowed whole by a flood of data, facts, suggestions, tips, recommendations, and marketing lures.

There’s really no way to survive, much less thrive, without organizing both your mental and physical environments. Here are some ways you can start hacking through the overgrowth. (And, yes, I know this is more information coming at you. I hope the difference is that you’ll easily apply these ideas to make forward progress easier and quicker.)

Dealing with mental overload

1. Go in with a plan.

With so much information demanding our attention, it’s essential to have a strategy for dealing with it. Here are some broad guidelines to help you weed out extraneous, energy-depleting, focus-destroying info:

  • What will you pay attention to, and why?
  • What information will you filter out, and why?
  • What’s your touchstone for making these decisions?

I just got hit by a BFO-a Blinding Flash of the Obvious-the other day. Although I’m kind of embarrassed to realize it took me so long to come to this moment, I figure it’s a case of better late than never.

I’m a hard-core information junkie; in fact, “Input” is my top strength according to the StrengthsFinder™ assessment. Translated, this means “I’m not sure when, where, or how I’ll use this new information, but I love having it!” My BFO came when I realized on a gut level that just because I could spend time and money learning something doesn’t mean I should. Duh!

Once I admitted this, I started taking steps to cut back on activities that simply deplete my energy and scatter my focus. Digging deeper into those three broad questions I posed earlier, I came up with the following criteria to use when deciding whether to dive into some new information. You can save yourself future aggravation by doing the same.

  • What are the specific business goals this will help me achieve?
  • How will this new investment move me closer to those goals?
  • Can I clearly identify how and where I’ll apply this new information?
  • How likely am I to actually apply this information, rather than just add it to my collection?
  • Is this information essential rather than just nice to know?

If you (or I) can’t quickly and clearly answer “Yes” to each of these questions, we get to walk away from the temptation.

2. Go narrow and deep.

This is a tough one for me. If I’m not careful, I find myself going “wide and shallow.” In other words, there’s so much interesting information out there that I’m at high risk of dabbling in a whole bunch of educational programs and new tools, rather than committing to any one of them and becoming skilled in its use. It’s a far better use of scarce time, energy, and money if I commit to a limited number of programs or strategies, then dive into them wholeheartedly. My gardening buddies would undoubtedly compare this to effective versus ineffective watering of plants: Giving them just a little bit of water just encourages shallow roots that provide a wimpy support system, whereas a deep soaking will encourage strong roots and thriving plants.

Dealing with environmental overload

1. Take charge of your files, both hard copy and electronic.

While I’m not a professional organizer (actually, far from it), I do have experience in saving my own sanity by creating and maintaining a system that works for me. Experiment with the following ideas to see which will keep you focused on what’s really important in your business.

  • Don’t handle e-mails as they come in. As we’ve probably all experienced, this can be a very deep, very dark rabbit hole. Instead, allocate time during the day to evaluate which e-mails need attention and which don’t. Some people can do this just once a day; others may opt for once in the morning and once after lunch. The key is to be intentional in how you deal with them, rather than to simply react to what appears in your inbox.
  • Choose a way to categorize your e-mails that makes sense for your business. What works for me, and what I often recommend to my clients, is to categorize them according to what I call the Four P’s of Development: Presence (in the marketplace), Prospects, Products, and Personal/Professional Skills. It’s typically much easier for entrepreneurs and small-business owners to work in their business (i.e., actually deliver your goods or services) than it is to work on the business (i.e., do development work). A good organizing system allows you to stay clear on how dealing with a particular task or e-mail will further develop your business.
  • Schedule time for dealing with your organized e-mails. One method I’ve had very good results with is allowing myself 15 minutes each morning to color-code all my incoming e-mails in Outlook. Then I allocate 15 minutes or more in my Tasks list to address a particular group of e-mails, e.g., those that relate to enhancing my marketing Presence. This allows me a huge amount of control over what I do and when I do it, plus it makes it far easier for me to delete e-mails that don’t relate to a clear business-development goal.

2. Start each day with clear desktops, both physical and computer.

  • Devote a portion of each day to keeping your work space clear. This has less to do with aesthetics than it does with your sanity and effectiveness. Only keep papers on your desk or programs open on your laptop that address today’s key activities. Otherwise, the physical and visual clutter will make it almost impossible to focus on the current important task. You’ll be working on it when some trivial item catches your eye and-SQUIRREL!!-you’re off on a lower-priority tangent with lower pay-off. Not only that, but a messy desktop typically will result in you spending a lot of personal time and energy looking for what you need…and the exact same thing is true for your computer’s CPU if you have a zillion shortcuts on your desktop or half a zillion tabs open in your Internet browser.

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