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In today's information age, strategic business data is your most potent weapon. It can also be your worst enemy. With pagers, fax machines, the Internet, e-mail and news available all day, every day, access to vital information isn't a problem. The trouble is, having all this information at your beck and call can easily lead to information overload.
I should know. I'm perpetually plagued by information overload. My voice mail regularly piles up with messages until it's ready to burst. And just when I think I've got the number of unanswered messages in my e-mail inbox down, here comes Monday morning--and another 72 messages to view.
And I'm not alone. According to Pitney Bowes, the average employee sends and receives a whopping 201 messages on any given day. Under these circumstances, even the most organized and diligent of entrepreneurs and employees may find themselves in need of better information-management strategies.
In today's business world, where knowledge is power, business owners would be wise to implement methods for combating information overload. Poor information management means lost productivity, and potentially lost sales. So get ready: It's time to start finding a way to manage your information--before it starts managing you.
Experts say the first step in avoiding information overload is to develop a keen sense of your goals and objectives.
"The best way to get a hold on information is to become really clear about your strategy," says Ellen Siminoff, vice president of business development and strategic planning for Yahoo!, who receives upwards of 300 e-mail messages and several dozen voice-mail messages daily. "If you have a sense of what your strategy is, you know what's important, what to spend more time on and what not to waste your bandwidth on."
Once your priorities are clear, the next step is developing a logical way to attack cumbersome e-mail, faxes, voice mail and other information sources. Some experts recommend checking them often so they don't pile up, while others advise designating certain times of the day for wading through your messages. Siminoff, for instance, tackles her e-mail inbox early every morning. Before beginning other tasks and attending meetings, she responds first to important and urgent messages, then to less important ones, so they're off her plate fast. In addition, she leaves quiet time at the end of her day for answering e-mail messages that demand a more thoughtful response.
Keep in mind, your strategy should fit your business environment and daily goals. When answering messages, stay focused. Don't get sidetracked into returning voice mail or responding to e-mail messages that don't align with your strategy. If possible, have an assistant screen your voice mail, incoming faxes, e-mail and snail mail so you see only the most pertinent information.
Whenever possible, keep your responses short. Get to the point when returning voice-mail messages, and stick to the facts in your e-mail. One great advantage e-mail has over picking up the phone: The niceties go out the window--or at least take up a lot less time--allowing you to get right to the matter at hand.
Above all, give newspaper articles, e-mail and other information a shelf life. If, after several weeks, you haven't found time to act on or pass on some piece of "interesting" information, toss it. If you've come across something important, print it out and file it, or immediately pass it on to the appropriate person. Don't keep e-mail around for too long either. Once the matter has been dealt with, delete the message permanently (just be sure to have some kind of regular system in place to back up your e-mail first).
Serious information junkies need more than a few handy data-management strategies. To win the war, you may require top-notch software and communications tools that automatically filter and prioritize information and provide access to it any time, anywhere.
Because most of us have trouble managing unwieldy amounts of e-mail, we'll start there. If you dread hearing the announcement "You've got mail," chances are you need some kind of advanced e-mail solution, such as the one offered by Eudora Pro Email 4.1 ($39 street; http://www.qualcomm.com).
A leading e-mail management program, Eudora Pro Email 4.1 offers advanced, powerful features to cut right through the clutter. You can view the partial contents of a message without even opening it, thanks to a message preview feature. Filters automatically identify and file your mail into certain folders, transfer or forward certain messages, or reply to designated e-mail messages with any number of automated responses. With Eudora Pro Email, your e-mail can even be downloaded and sent while you're simultaneously performing other functions such as composing a new message or looking up addresses in the address book.
Other e-mail programs offer more basic--but useful--management features. Using these programs, you can take advantage of functions that designate important messages with an exclamation point or red highlight, and learn how to use automatic blocking features. Yahoo! Mail (http://www.yahoo.com), for instance, has a new feature that automatically blocks certain messages; if someone frequently sends jokes or nonproductive e-mail, users can simply click a button to stop receiving any messages from this person.
Easy access to your information is also an integral aspect of getting a handle on it. It's easier to control infoglut when you can attend to voice mail, e-mail and the like whenever and wherever you want. One strategy: Keep all your important info online. Many entrepreneurs use Web-based e-mail like MSN Hotmail (http://www.hotmail.com) or Yahoo! Mail so they can access it from any location with just a browser. Useful services like Yahoo! Calendar put all your appointment, meeting and contact information online for easier access. To help you keep on top of things, Yahoo! Pager, a free message service, will even beep you when you receive new e-mail or when there's an upcoming appointment in your Yahoo! Calendar.
Similarly, consider using call-forwarding services that forward calls to your cell phone while you're on the road. Unified messaging services that pool all your communications for easier management are also a good option. Your telecommunications provider is likely to provide these services. Or consider using services like JFAX.COM (http://www.jfax.com). JFAX.COM Unified Messaging sends all your voice messages, faxes and e-mail to a single place--your e-mail box. Once assigned a personal phone number, any voice mail or fax that arrives is converted into an e-mail message and sent immediately to your inbox; simply click to view your faxes or listen to your voice-mail messages via an audio file. To get started, there's a one-time service activation fee of $15 as well as a monthly service fee of $12.50.
And there's even more help on the way. Look for more intelligent agents that clip information from the Internet and bring it back to you via your hand-held computer or cell phone. Also, thanks to anticipated improvements in calendaring and e-mail integration into the latest palmtops, pagers and cell phones, vital information will always be at the ready. With the right combination of common sense strategies and the latest technology tools, access to information becomes a blessing, not a curse. Maybe there's hope for me yet.
Live and Learn
How do some of the busiest entrepreneurs avoid information overload? We asked a few to share their tips:
Company name and description: iVillage, a leading women's online network (a href=http://www.ivillage.com>http://www.ivillage.com)
Based: New York City
Co-founder's name and age: Nancy Evans, 49
Best strategy for managing e-mail: For awhile, I was having it all printed out and then flipping through it on the way home from work, scribbling notes on those that needed a response and tossing those that didn't. But a [written] response by snail mail was defeating the whole purpose of e-mail. Now my assistant edits out the ones that aren't must-reads, and at night I go in and attend to my e-mail.
Strategies most helpful in avoiding info overload: All trade magazines and newsletters go into a reading folder that I either take with me on plane flights or take home on Friday. The cost of a cab in the morning is the price I pay to read The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Snail mail is handled by my office assistant.
Company name and description: Jamba Juice, fruit smoothies franchisor
Based: San Francisco
Co-founder's name and age: Linda Olds, 35
Best strategy for managing e-mail: I attack it daily, including weekends and vacations! Each morning, I go through all my e-mail first thing to reply or bring closure to the messages as quickly as possible. I also check e-mail throughout the day and attempt to answer each message as it comes in.
Strategies most helpful in avoiding info overload: Prioritizing my goals and objectives, and aligning them against the company and department's goals and objectives. I also delegate where appropriate, and keep open lines of communication to minimize confusion and wasted effort.
iVillage, (212) 206-3141, http://www.ivillage.com
Jamba Juice, (415) 865-1200, http://www.jambajuice.com