Feature Article: Lean and Mean in 2008: Go on a Low-Information Diet

Pretty much anybody you ask will tell you theyíre pressed for time. There just arenít enough hours to get it all done, yadda yadda yadda. So we prioritize, streamline, and simplify. You can improve your efficiency until youíre blue in the face, not to mention very tightly wound, but you still arenít addressing one of the biggest time and energy wasters in your day: incoming information. As my 12-year-old daughter, Meagan, would text on her phone: ďTMIĒ (translation: Too Much Information).

If the 21st century has brought us anything, it is WAY too much information. You can watch several channels full of cable news 24 hours a day. You can surf the internet on any topic until you canít see straight. Most people could heat their home with the amount of junk mail they receive on a continuous basis. Imagine the time and productivity lost just sorting though it all!

So why not join me in 2008 and put yourself on a low-information diet? Make this the year that you say ďNO MORE!Ē to the endless onslaught of time-wasting, productivity-eating, stress-inducing STUFF coming at you.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Skip the news. I havenít regularly watched the news or read a newspaper in fifteen years. Some people are shocked when they hear me say that. But Iím shocked when people confess how much time they waste each day reading their latest blog postings. Think about what you really gain by being a news junkie. To be honest, most of the news out there just isnít the kind of thing that really impacts my family, my business, or me. And quite frankly, a big chunk of what gets reported will do little more than make me feel angry or even depressed. So if your job or your natural sense of curiosity donít prohibit it, consider a very low-news diet. Believe me: my selective ignorance has never caused me a single problem and allows me to focus my energy and attention.

Never meet in person to give information. Whatís the number one complaint most people have when it comes to office productivity? Meetings! Why do we do it to ourselves? Do we really leave with the decisions that made spending the time worthwhile? Or are we just regurgitating information thatís already been provided elsewhere? Does the speaker stand there and read the PowerPoint slides he just emailed to you? Hello? If you already have the slidesóyou could have just read them yourself. Phone conferences are even worse: they take much longer than an in-person meeting, because participants are checking email and fiddling with their computers. Create a pact with your team members or department mates to never again have an in-person meeting or phone conference where you are simply conveying information. Put it on the intranet or compile it into a single email that goes out once a week. Keep the high cost of the in-person meeting at ebay when the purpose is a simple transfer of low-value information.

Use the phone strategically. What about meetings with people outside of your officeóvendors and clients, for example? How many times have you spent weeks trying to set up an appointment, only to have it rescheduled at the last minute? Once the meeting actually happens, it costs you a huge piece of your day. If you have a thirty minute meeting that requires an hourís worth of driving, decide if the time would be better spent with a phone call. Are you really getting better information in person? Nine times out of ten these meetings could be handled in a tiny fraction of the time, if only they were replaced with a quick phone call. Skip the commute, keep the gas money, and save yourself a ton of time. You may even find that your clients view your respect for THEIR time as refreshing and will appreciate it to no end.

The Mailman Knocks One Hundred Times. The U.S Postal Service does not come running to your home, ring your bell, and hand you one piece of mail at a time, multiple times a day. Itís batched and delivered once. If only we could follow the same principle with electronic mail. Iím not recommending you only check your in-box once a dayóI believe thatís unrealisticóbut you should still try to cut down. You canít focus on a task requiring concentration with your in-box open. I process my e-mail just a handful of times each day. Itís easy to be in the habit of checking the instant you hear that little ding, but think about what youíre doing to yourself. What percentage of incoming email is important? 10 percent? 25 percent? Two percent? If the majority of incoming email is unimportant and represents information you donít need (there are donuts in the cafeteria), why would you stop working on the most important task of the day to see if one makes the cut? Youíre letting everyone else dictate your day to you by immediately stopping your productive work and redirecting your attention to an e-mail that is probably not that important anyway. Then you need to refocus your attention and try to get back on track with whatever you were doing. After the 50-200 emails you receive each day, just think how many times per hour your productive activities must come to a grinding halt. Maybeójust maybeóyouíre doing it, on purpose, as an excuse to NOT to have to do the hard work you should be doing.

Make the decision NOW. Many decisions are put off because people are waiting for more information. How much do you need? Sometimes enough is good enough. You will never be able to analyze all the inís and outís of every decision, and there will always be more information out there you didnít consider. Gather enough information and make the best decision you can with the information you have. Things can always change. My father always told me to take initiative and ask forgiveness, not permission. In the early days of my career, I just handled things for my managers without asking. If they were gone, I answered for them. Sometimes it was the wrong answer to be sure, but Iíve always been praised for trying to save my boss some time and force some movement, rather than being berated for the wrong action. I wish more people would just get some brass and DECIDE. Stop getting approvals from a million people to cover your backside. Youíre making everyone around you crazy. Sometimes it is much more efficient to go with the information you have, make the WRONG decision, and make adjustments if necessary, than to waste time being indecisive. 

Empower your people. Eric Hoffer, the late American social philosopher, once said, ďFar more crucial than what we know or do not know is what we do not want to know.Ē My husband and COO, John, has asked me several times if Iíd like to learn to use the postage machine in our office. Iíve always staunchly declined. I have absolutely no desire to learn how to use it. I enjoy being purposefully ignorant about that machine, since I have no business running it. When my assistant, Lisa (who sits near me by design), casually asks me a question on the postal machine, I can honestly say, ďI have no idea. Youíll have to get with someone else.Ē My staff needs to learn to be problem solving people and handle challenges they experience in the areas theyíve been charged to run, just as I do. They canít handle my areas of responsibility, and I refuse to handle theirsóand I unabashedly hold them accountable for their own results. Iím happy to get them training or pay for assistance, but you should never do those things personally that can be done by someone else at a lower pay level. Youíll kill yourself. Give your people the authority they need to make decisions and get things done. If you donít, youíll find they consistently create more work for you, not less. 

Cut, cut, cut. Donít lose your focus as the year goes on. Cut, streamline, and reduce. Cancel magazine subscriptions. Get rid of the junk you havenít used in a year. Let all calls you donít recognize go to voicemail. Unsubscribe from all newsletters you havenít specifically requested. Go out and find things you determine you need to buy, rather than having salespeople feed you information about more things youíll buy but wonít use. If your clients keep asking you for the same information over and over again, put it on your website and let new clients know in advance where to find it. These are just a few examples about how you can deal with less information. Hope you lose lots of weight on your low-information diet and make 2008ÖGREAT!

Make it a productive day! ô

(C) Copyright 2008 Laura Stack. All rights reserved.

© 2008 Laura Stack. Laura Stack is a personal productivity expert, author, and professional speaker who helps busy workers Leave the Office Earlierģ with Maximum Results in Minimum Timeģ. She is the president of The Productivity Proģ, Inc., a time management training firm specializing in productivity improvement in high-stress organizations. Since 1992, Laura has presented keynotes and seminars on improving output, lowering stress, and saving time in todayís workplaces. She is the bestselling author of three works published by Broadway Books: The Exhaustion Cure (2008), Find More Time (2006) and Leave the Office Earlier (2004). Laura is a spokesperson for Microsoft, 3M, and Day-Timersģ, Inc and has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, and the New York Times. Her clients include Cisco Systems, Sunoco, KPMG, Nationwide, and 3M. To have Laura speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401. Visit www.TheProductivityPro.com to sign up for her free monthly productivity newsletter.