I was explaining to a friend what I do in Information Overload space and at some point he said he’d thought I was doing Time Management consulting, and now he realized I don’t. Which set me thinking, and I realized there are two approaches to the problem, and indeed mine is not that of promoting Time Management practices directly.
Why time management training does you good
When I say Time Management consulting, I refer loosely to the practice of educating people on how to handle their information overload in the context of improving their overall work, task and time management practices: how to keep track of the myriad things they need to do, how to assign priorities, how not to get sucked into the unimportant stuff, and so forth. This is a valuable set of skills, and can greatly benefit people. It’s been around long before email came on the scene to destroy our peace of mind; I took a Time Management class back in the eighties, and still remember the moment when the teacher took a memo, crumpled it and threw it on the floor (to illustrate that yes, you can ignore an intruding incoming missive that isn’t important – what we do today by clicking Delete, of course).
Today there are numerous consultants, trainers, books, webinars, blogs and coaches who teach just that: methods for managing your time and your workload. These all provide a valuable service, and make a good business out of it (think of David Allen’s GTD – Getting Things done – that has almost a cult following). The flood of incoming email is a key component of today’s work, so it plays a major part in all these offerings.
Obviously, as a veteran email overload expert, I could do this too; in fact I usually include in my lectures on the subject a few slides of useful advice of this sort. And yet, I’ve chosen to focus my consulting work on addressing information overload primarily from a completely different angle.
How I improve time management without teaching it at all
What I do is focus not on individual knowledge workers, but on the organizations they work in. I’ve long since realized that Information Overload is caused by root causes related to the organizational culture, such as inadequate norms, unrealistic expectations, and – underlying much of it all – mistrust. So rather than sell companies employee workshops where individual employees will be taught how to process their email load faster, or how to practice better etiquette, I work with the management of these companies to instill the missing norms, eliminate the mistrust, and stem the flood by removing its root causes.
This approach may seem indirect, but it has a much greater leverage in the long term. If a company is willing to change the culture that drives employees to waste each other’s time (and not every company is, I know) then it will be fixing the problem at the source and achieving a lasting gain. Time management improvements will be much more effective in such a context.
Why I put the organizational approach first
This is not to say that I oppose skill and etiquette training for employees; indeed, I often recommend it be included in the overall solution program. There are, as I said, many resources a company can turn to in this respect, and I’m happy to recommend them. It’s just that my own expertise has always been in organization-wide solution approaches, ever since I’d built my first email overload program at Intel, and I remain focused on those. It would appear that there’s much less competition in this space – most of the existing consulting goes after the individual, with only a few firms worldwide having the inclination and the experience to work at a corporate level.
And frankly, at least to my mind, it’s a much more interesting area! Getting organizations to change their ways involves greater challenges and complexities; and over the years it has given me opportunities to interact with passionate people who drive solutions in a variety of large corporations, ultimately leading us to co-found the Information Overload Research Group. It’s strange that I, a physicist by training, should say this, but the workings of organizations and their culture are no less fascinating than quantum mechanics (and the math is easier ;-))
What you can do about this
If you’re a manager about to address information overload in your organization, I recommend you avoid the temptation to just make it about the individual – go all the way to the organizational aspect. You can still include individual training, but make it a part of a wider program. If you need advice how to do it, drop me a line.
Meanwhile, if you want my favorite tips at the individual, team or company level, here they are.