From the October 2000 issue of Startups

The quiet sound I hear every day-over the rumbling of my fax machine, the pinging of my e-mail alert, and the chatter of CNN-is my brain. Exploding.

I am a victim of information overload.

But aren't we all? Remember the good old days-like, five years ago-when we had one phone line? Today, I have three: one personal line, a second for my home office and a third for my fax machine. A cable line brings in my Internet service. At any given moment, I'm under siege by e-mails, snail mails, phone calls and packages sent via UPS, Fed-Ex and Airborne Express.

Information overload. It might be anything from a newspaper article to a phone call from your chatty Uncle Marvin. And there really is no one solution to this onslaught of information. Just like the information you choose (and don't choose) to receive, the solution to your problem will be tailor-made to fit your business and your working style. But with ruthless perseverance, homebased entrepreneurs can stay informed without being overwhelmed. Here are a few ideas on how to avoid becoming overwhelmed by all the information jockeying for your attention every day.



Geoff Williams frequently contributes to Entrepreneur magazine. He freelances out of his home office during the afternoons, and spends his mornings writing human-interest stories at The Cincinnati Post.

We Are At War

Richard Saul Wurman's book, Information Anxiety 2001, claims that a weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in 17th century England.

That's not hard to believe. Your great-great-great-great grandfather lived in different times: Maybe he received some new information from friends, his church pastor or a stranger at the market. If he could read, maybe he had access to a newspaper or the occasional book.

Today, information comes through a bevy of channels: telephone, voice mail, snail mailbox, e-mail and the Web (accessed on your desktop, laptop and handheld computer), pager, fax machine, television, radio, newspaper, magazines, newsletters, books, neighbors, strangers in the market, outdoor ads. . . . You get the picture.

It's no wonder we're all stressed. Five years ago, you probably didn't have a second computer, much less a high-speed Net connection. Now we're all using more equipment to get more information and we're paying more for it, too, so we're working harder, which means we have less time to spend getting our information.

Something has to go. You don't have to throw out your TV, but maybe you can limit your watching to one hour a day (hey, it works for your kids). Even CNBC, while business-informative, can be distracting if it's running while you're working. So, too, is talk radio. Do you need a pager if you have a cell phone? Can you combine your business-line voice mail with that of your cell phone? Do you still need to subscribe to a newspaper, or can you scan headlines online while you sip coffee? I can't tell you how to minimize, or consolidate, the distractions in your life-because it's your life--but maybe these suggestions will help.

Weapons Of War
Click off the talk radio. If you must have background noise, go for some classical music.

Ditch the pager.

Use an online news site to scan daily headlines.

The War of Words

If words were soldiers, I would be surrounded. And probably dragged into a prisoner-of-word camp.

In the past year, I've started 22 subscriptions to magazines, newspapers and newsletters. As a journalist, it seemed like a good expenditure. After all, don't I need to know what's going on, to get ideas on new topics? But at this rate, someday I'm going to be a very well-informed journalist standing in an unemployment line.

It's natural for homebased business owners to want to read everything, insists Leslie Levine, a 41-year-old author and speaker who works out of her Chicago home: "We crave information because we're isolated. You can't walk by somebody's office and see a magazine on their desk. Somebody doesn't pass you by and suggest that you read an article they enjoyed." So, homebased entrepreneurs, like hunters and gatherers of prehistoric times, collect what information they can. The problem is, they collect too much.

Of course, we can all stop subscribing to the publications that we never find time to read. But what about the rest of the stuff? Try to limit your information intake to two main areas: Information that's important to your business and stuff that makes you say, "I really love reading this."

Try the following methods for all that you've kept on your reading list:

  • Schedule a reading hour. Make it the last few hours of a Friday or the first few hours of a Monday-a time when your energy is low and you need a bit of a break. But don't do it when you're exhausted. You won't understand or retain what you're reading.
  • Clip articles for later reference. Circle everything interesting in your newspapers and magazines, file it, and throw the rest of the publication away. Yada, yada, yada. You've probably heard that suggestion a million times. But have you ever actually tried it? Maybe it'll work.
  • Outsource. There are several ways you can do this. If you have the bucks, pay for a brick-and-mortar clipping service to do all your reading for you-they'll send you the information you need, and not the needless. You can also subscribe to an Internet-based clipping service, like the $100-per-month service provided by gotmarketing.com. Or you could use a cheaper service, like the one I've used for several years now: elibrary.com. For $60 a year, I may not get the one-on-one attention I might receive at a more expensive service, but the Internet-based library sends me articles on various subjects if I ask it to, and I can look up tons of current and semi-ancient information on my own.

If you have a bored grandparent or uncle, a mother who's always offering to help, pay them a nominal fee to keep up-to-date on the topics or information you're constantly searching for. Then change the subscription on your magazines so that they head toward your reading relatives. They can then update you every week or month on what you need to know, either via snail mail, e-mail or in person. (Just think, meet with your mom and multitask).

Weapons Of War
Don't let publications pile up. Clip the important stuff and toss the rest.

Schedule a reading hour each week.

Pay a relative to scan publications for relevant articles, and have them fill you in on the news over coffee.

Tactical Maneuvers

I like the thinking of Betsy Lampe, the president of the National Association of Independent Publishers Publisher's Report, a for-profit newsletter. She's also the president of Rainbow Books, a 21-year-old book publishing company, and president of the National Association of Independent Publishers. All three organizations were started by her 75-year-old mother, Betty, who is still active in the Highland City, Florida, homebased businesses.

"I used to get really inundated," Lampe e-mailed me, explaining how she is swamped daily by e-mails, faxes and letters. "But I started triaging everything."

Triaging? Yes, before Lampe was waist-deep in e-mails, faxes and letters, she was a paramedic, elbow-deep in blood. In case you don't watch M*A*S*H reruns, Webster's dictionary refers to a triage as "the sorting of and allocation of treatment to patients, and especially battle and disaster victims, according to a system of priorities designed to maximize the number of survivors."

Following that theory, Lampe attacks incoming information in this order:

1. Items of business that bring in money the soonest.

2. Items that bring in the most money, even if the money is down the road.

3. Items that can either help or speed up No. 1 and No. 2.

Everything else she can ignore or save for later. Much later.

Weapons Of War
What happens to all that residual information you have left after triaging? "The box of mail [I receive] each day isn't tossed or wasted," says Betsy Lampe. "I [go through it] for items for my newsletter, and later, shred it for packing material."

My Own War

And as for me? During the course of researching this article, I've examined how I handle information overload, and I've tried several tools to help me organize all the information coming in. I tried pouring all my dates and contacts into online calendars (like When.com and DailyDrill.com) and panicked when the one I had settled on (AnyDay.com) crashed for a day. Now I'm working with a Handspring Visor, a handheld PC created by the makers of the Palm Pilot, which lets me share a calendar, contacts and the like between the computer in my home office and everywhere else I am.

It's been great so far. Yesterday, it only took me 19 minutes to enter a phone number. But down the road, when I'm away from my office and I can get to that phone number, I think I'm going to enjoy it. I'm still a victim of information overload, but my load is getting lighter.