Whether your business is big or small, there are some things that will remain the same: One, in running it, you’ll need access to a large amount of various information and electronic data. Two, you need help in staying on top of the data you already have and handle what keeps coming in. Three, you can have trouble getting rid of data that you don’t or can’t find useful.
Here’s the background to why even the thought of getting rid of things (including data) hurts, and a few suggestions on how to handle too much information.
Your inherited survivor’s brain.
There’s a part of your brain that registers loss –real or imagined — as pain: We are hardwired to react more strongly to losing stuff that we are at getting stuff. It’s our stubborn ancestors who fought to hold onto what they had that went to on pass their genes to the next generation, because loss-prevention was part of what helped keep them alive long enough to do so.
This loss-aversion applies to electronic data as well as physical stuff now. Your stuff is your stuff (as George Carlin explained very well in this video clip). You can have a desk buried under files and papers, and hard-drives and USB drives full of data, and it’s still your stuff.
And the thought of losing any of it can be as uncomfortable for deleting data (which takes up no physical space) as is misplacing an important report or a favorite pen. The pain registers in the same part of the brain. You hold onto your stuff, you don’t feel that discomfort associated with ‘losing stuff’, even if it means having hundreds, thousands, of gigs of assorted data spread across your home unit, work unit, external drives, and in the cloud. You feel safer having it, even if you can’t access it now right NOW, you ‘know’ you have it stored…somewhere.
Your little habits.
Pull back a little and assess your inbox, for example. Maybe you have a dedicated email address simply for sign-ups and registration to newsletters on topics you’re interested in, aside from your work email, too (which is a whole ‘nother thing.)
- How many e-newsletters do you get that you read from top to bottom?
- How many do you glance at, mark as ‘unread’, and then save for later?
- How many mailing lists have you unsubscribed from in the past month? The past year?
- How many new ones did you subscribe to in the hope of doing better at your business?
More than likely you get e-mail on things you’ve outgrown or lost interest in, but haven’t cleared those out by clicking on the ‘unsubscribe’ button. And your ‘To Read later’ folder — how many emails does it have?
And that’s just email.
What about the rest of your access to media — via social platforms like Facebook, Linkedin, Instagram, Twitter, etcetera — or your website? How much relevant data do you get from the sites you visit, and how much impact does the information you get factor in making a positive change in your business ? Not just the chemical squirt of endorphins you get from discovering new things, but actual, measurable improvement in the way you do things? Like junk food and it’s effects, not all data you take in is actually good for you.
Wiring and habit, without conscious attention and deliberate choice, contribute to information build-up and back-log.
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln
For those who work in an always-connected business environment, the pace often leaves us stressed because we’re running in place just to catch up. That speed can be toxic and addictive, in that we grow used to dealing with things on the fly–and so don’t take pause and real breaks to assess, recover, and move with a plan. We rarely make the time to think ahead, so we’re left no time to think when it’s really needed.
You don’t think ahead and prepare, you end up hacking away randomly and creating a ragged path through the influx of data. Not only does this not create a clear path for the day, it steals time. It steals time. And for all the times you scrape, pray and scrabble to have more time, to fit in just one more thing, you rarely think that: To get more time you need to take things out rather than to stuff your day full.
Subtracting the data equivalent of junk food opens up more time and mental space to use good information in a better way.
You can develop the habit of organization: recognizing and cutting out the inconsequential, and using a system that not just makes inroads into the flow of data, but channels it into distinct streams, streams which fit into an easily understood and manageable order.
There’s information that doesn’t matter and is unimportant, then there’s information that you can use to grow. You make your own standards, and the stronger they are, the more they aid you in separating the trivial from the essential.
Importance and relevance.
It’s the importance we assign that dictates how we treat data, and sometimes, we get a little skewed assigning that importance. Just because it’s in front of you right now doesn’t meant it should take the center stage. All the pings and alerts want center stage, the spotlight, the front seats.
You’re the director. You decide who goes first, and who should wait backstage and in what order.
If you don’t run the stage, the stage will run you.
For example, take the case of your email and spam. We have filters in place to block the more obnoxious and obvious spam.
But– haven’t you ever thought of non-helpful information as spam as well? information that you don’t use: “Forward this Money Cat to 10 friends!” type of emails, or shared links to amusing videos. “Like if you love/support/have _____.”
You’re a whole person, and not just a business owner, so you can get all sorts of information coming in from friends, family, and colleagues, coming in not just through email but through the social media accounts you use. You clean up the stream of data coming in, you clear up your data intake — the mental equivalent of going on a cleanse.
Amassing data for a specific purpose: The kind of data determines how you treat it and store it, and where you secure it. There’s documents and information for tax purposes, guarantees, warranties. Then there’s customer information (credit card and payment security, customer details, etc.). Add to that documentation for standard operating procedures. Plus possible future plans and brainstorming notes.
Purpose helps define longevity: for tax purposes, you’re supposed to store your returns for seven years. Warranties say their coverage terms in the small print, etc. Assess your data for relevance, importance, and usefulness.
Possessing terabytes of assorted digital files means you have a lot of data on-hand, but what is it for? Again, key terms are: relevant, important,useful — your data is to what purpose?
You have a lot of information, but what are you doing (present tense) with it?
You don’t just save data, you need to curate it: The responsibility of managing your information is not limited to monitoring active files, revisions, and keeping archives.
The fantasy of ‘getting to it later’ is very seductive.
“Sometime this week I’ll block out an afternoon and read/ listen to/ watch: a marketing video, the podcasts I saved, the back issues of e-newsletters, training materials, worksheets etc.”
There’s not enough time to read, watch, and listed to everything. What you focus on always has a price. Are you willing to pay it to process all that information , a lot of which you can honestly admit you won’t even miss or remember tomorrow? You pay in:
- Energy – Mental and physical energy spent on taking in the data, thinking about it, and breaking it down to usable bits and pieces.
- Attention – Meaning brain space and computing power, as well as active storage . Without training, we can generally remember 3-5 things well at a given time, any more, we start mis-remembering the details.
- Opportunity costs – You do something, you close the door to being able to do other things. You spend your time doing this, it also means you aren’t doing that.
Times spent looking at a screen means time not spent on anything else. if you need to spend time on more pressing or vital or important matters, you need to cut out the inconsequential and the anti-vital. Think of it like fending off mosquitoes. A few are bothersome, a cloud of them is painful.
No matter how much information you have, you can always get more, but that doesn’t promise a perfect decision for the future. And sometimes in business, even if you’re uncertain, you just have to go with the best option you can see and go with it. What would help you in this case is a system that helps you make the best choices you can.
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