Information Overload: How to Escape the Crush

Stanley Bergen has a problem. As a regular reader of ETR and a new member of the Oxford Club, he’s getting so much good stuff from us (he’s especially interested in learning how to “eliminate some debt” and retire one day) that he “can’t figure out what to read.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” he says. “I love ETR and the Oxford Club publications, and I look forward to reading them. But it’s too much information all at once.”

“What should I do?” he asks.

What should any of us do?

We live in a world that is absolutely flooded with information. Consider these facts:

• The average person receives 32 e-mail messages per day.

• There is enough scientific information written every day to fill seven complete sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

• The world’s production of print, film, optical, and magnetic content in just one year would require roughly 5 exabytes (5 trillion megabytes) of storage, about 800 megabytes per person.

So if you – like Stan Bergen – are feeling overwhelmed by information, you’re not alone. Information overload is a serious problem for just about everyone.

“One of the most anxiety-inducing side effects of the information era,” Richard Saul Wurman says in Information Anxiety, “is the feeling that you have to know it all.” That is especially true for smart, ambitious people – people who want to improve their lives and realize that getting the right information is a big part of success.

As an ETR reader, that probably means you.

When you begin a new project or become interested in a new idea, do you have an insatiable desire to learn more about it? Do you find yourself buying – and reading – every book, report, newsletter, and magazine you can find on the subject? (That’s what I do.)

In the beginning, it feels great. You are riding high. Then, all of a sudden, you realize that you’ve become an information junkie. You’ve been spending so much time reading about whatever it is you want to do that you don’t have any time left to actually do it. You feel like crying for help.

Bob Bly calls this “analysis paralysis.”

“All the information you are taking in has overloaded your circuits,” he says. “You can’t process it all, sort through it, and figure out what to do first. So, instead, you do nothing. You take no action – other than to order yet another course or report to read.”

Does any of this sound familiar?

Bob has a formula for preventing analysis paralysis. He calls it the 25-50-25 rule. It is based on the fact that there are only three ways to learn a process (e.g., how to start an Internet business) or a skill (e.g., copywriting): studying, observing, and doing.

The 25-50-25 rule says that you must divide your time as follows:

• No more than 25 percent of your time studying – i.e., reading books, attending workshops, listening to instructional CDs in your car.

• No more than 25 percent of your time observing – watching what successful people are already doing.

• At least 50 percent of your time actually DOING the thing you are studying and observing.

For example, if you want to sell information products on the Internet, you would spend 25 percent of your time studying material on the way it’s done, 25 percent of your time observing the way other people are doing it, and 50 percent of your time creating your first product… designing your website… and building your list.

I like Bob’s rule because it emphasizes action. And when I found out about it, I wondered if it could be applied to my daily working life. In thinking about it, I concluded that it depended greatly on what sort of work I was doing. If I was learning a new skill, Bob’s rule seemed to apply. But when I was going about my normal workday activities – creating new products and growing businesses – my time was spent very differently.

My daily working life, I realized, has three common components:

• Gathering information
• Analyzing that information and using it to make plans
• Taking action

I tend to do my information gathering at specific times. I read newspapers in the early morning, magazines during breaks, and e-mail at the end of the day. I read to encounter useful ideas. I analyze those ideas both as I’m reading them and later on, at odd moments throughout the day. I spend most of my workday – about 80 percent of it – taking action. The rest of my time – 20 percent – is devoted to gathering information, analyzing it, and making plans.

I like that 80 percent number. It corresponds with Pareto’s Law – the 80/20 rule that you can apply to just about everything.

I decided to ask some of the most successful people I know (from many different industries and countries) the following questions:

1. How much time each day do you work?
2. How much of that time do you spend gathering and analyzing information?
3. How much of that time do you spend planning?
4. How much of your day do you spend taking action?

Only half a dozen have responded so far, but their answers are interesting. In terms of hours worked, it ranges from 4.5 to 12, with an average of 9. In terms of planning, the range extends from 15 minutes to 90 minutes, with an average of 45. Time devoted to information gathering ranges from 90 minutes to 3 hours, with an average of 145 minutes.

Those numbers correspond to mine. A typical workday for me is 10 hours long, with an hour and a half devoted to gathering information and 45 minutes devoted to some form of planning.

That’s not a ton of time for inputs. And that means the minutes I spend each day taking in information must be absolutely golden.

What I didn’t expect to get from my brief survey were the comments and insights my colleagues have been sharing. They’ve not only told me how they spend their time, but have offered tricks and techniques for getting more done, faster.

Responses are still coming in. When I get all of them, I’ll be sure to make them available to you. So keep reading ETR for more details.

Next week, I’ll give you a clear and useful strategy for reading all that information you’re being bombarded with, to help you sort through the clutter. While you’re waiting for solutions, compare the way you allocate your time to the numbers above that I’ve already collected.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]
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