Time management: How to understand and manage triple overload

Difficult to focus on work these days isn’t it? Beat Buhlmann and Graham Allcott give us some advice for when you’re feeling overloaded. 

Where does all your time during the workday go? Why are you always so busy? Are you having ‘one of those days’ every day? Don’t panic, there’s good news: you’re not alone and there is something you can do about it.  

Workers are currently facing what I call triple overload: data, communication and cognitive. And as a result, the UK is falling behind when it comes to productivity:

  • UK workers are 27% less productive than their German counterparts (ONS survey)
  • Great Britain is below-par when it comes to productivity, falling behind the average for the other six members of the G7 group of industrial nations by 15%

How did we get here?

Just after World War II Buckminster Fuller predicted that knowledge doubling (the amount of time it takes for all the knowledge in the world to double) was taking around 25 years. Current estimates suggest that right now it takes just 14 months for the store of human knowledge to double.

Stop and think about when you’re at your best, and vigorously protect your best-attention-time so you can do your best work.

No wonder we struggle to keep up-to-date and on top of every big current development (e.g. AI).

A recent survey among 2217 digital workers in the UK conducted by YouGov in March 2018 found some possible reasons for the triple overload:

  • 87% of us use up to four devices daily to access information
  • 35% of those surveyed use 1-4 apps everyday
  • 31% of those asked use 5-9 apps every day
  • 18% use 10 or more apps a day
  • 57% of those questioned feel frustrated that they can’t find information they need easily – this includes emails, messages, internet and apps

The problems and the solution

Problem #1: Data overload

Research papers show that because of data overload the average knowledge worker wastes about two and a half hours per day searching for information, which is not productive at all. By 1950, human knowledge was doubling every 25 years.

Today, that’s reduced to 14 months. In less than a decade, thanks largely to our interconnected devices, the sum total of all human knowledge will be doubling everyday.

Problem #2: Communication overload

According to an article by Rob Cross et al, knowledge workers spend about 80% of their working time communicating or collaborating through emails, meetings, chat, and messenger. As a result, not much time remains to do deep work, which is considered the most valuable contribution of a knowledge worker.

Problem #3: Cognitive overload

Almost a decade ago, research revealed that a knowledge worker gets interrupted or switches tasks every three to five minutes on average. This leads to a very unhealthy cognitive overload, exhaustion and mini burnouts at the end of the working day.


Solution #1: Protect your best attention

Attention is more precious than time. Stop and think about when you’re at your best, and vigorously protect your best-attention-time so you can do your best work. Reduce or remove distractions: get out of the email inbox, put your phone in your bag, or if your colleagues are the biggest distraction, perhaps it’s time to be intentionally unavailable to really focus yourself.

Solution #2: Turn ‘things’ into ‘actions’

A strategy that really helps is to turn any piece of information, whether it’s an idea or a worry in your head, an email on your screen, or a piece of paper landing on your desk, into the ‘next physical action’. Physical actions are things like ‘call’ or ‘email’ or ‘write down on paper’ – not vague things like ‘sort out’ or ‘follow up’.

Solution #3: Embrace the word NO

Most people struggle with saying ‘no’. It can feel awkward. But remember you are saying no to the task, not the person. It might be a good idea, but does it really fit with your strategy? It might add value, but does it add enough value to be worth your time?

Are you saying yes because you feel guilty or obligated? Are you saying yes because you got excited and carried away? Always remember that ‘no’ is a complete sentence.

Solution #4: Conduct a weekly review

A weekly review is an hour or so set aside to focus on the strategic, project-level thinking that you need to do. The more you think about your work, the easier it becomes. Simple as that.

Solution #5: Seek small wins

The psychology of momentum is very important for productivity, and can counter-balance a lot of the ‘stuck’ feelings of being overwhelmed and overloaded. Breaking everything down into small wins is a powerful way to build momentum.

Solution #6: Turn off unnecessary notifications

Every notification is a tiny piece of information that has the potential to create a massive interruption to your work, your thought pattern and your frame of mind. So to stop them eating away at your valuable attention time (see solution number one above) use the settings in your devices to limit yourself to only the most essential notifications.

Solution #7: Keep your unread email in your inbox at zero

Email can be a huge source of anxiety, fear and guilt. Why? Because hidden deep in your inbox are all those uncertainties, building up. Just like little gremlins playing with your mind. The key is the uncertainty. So develop strategies to get your inbox regularly back to zero unread mail.

This is best achieved by batch-processing email at particular times of the day, rather than having your inbox open in the background all of the time.

Solution #8: Collect info in big buckets, not tiny cups

When you organise information it can be very tempting to create lots of small folders. The logic seems pretty simple: it feels easier to know where you’ll find something in the future if it lives in a folder with a very specific name. However, the opposite is true.

A much smaller number of ‘big buckets’, each containing a large number of files is much quicker to search, easier to maintain and also much quicker to file new items into. 


About the authors

Beat Buhlmann is Evernote’s General Manager for EMEA and Graham Allcott is director of Think Productive




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