Out of Overload

A Guide for Technical Managers

Chapter 3
Core Principles

Central Reference.
Short Term Memory.
An Index.

Engagement.
Impromptu Engagement.
The Minimum.

Physical Organization.
Organizing Resources.

The core principles for getting out of overload are easy to implement and can be understood at a glance. Simple as they may appear, they offer a return on effort that is many times greater than the energy required.

In order to lock these techniques into your repertoire of skills, youíll be asked to consider how youíll apply them in everyday life. If you can imagine using a technique in just one situation, youíll capture it; if you donít, it stands a good chance of being another fleeting thought.

As often as possible, ask yourself: "How would I use this?"

This type of questioning can run counter to the urge to continue reading. Many, out of force of habit, start reading and never pause -- even for ten seconds to think through a concept. Building mental images and having internal dialogs are powerful aids for integrating new practices into your routine. Even if it goes against your inclination to keep reading, please try to follow the suggestions for asking questions and creating images.

Youíll also be asked to consider questions like:

"If I took this principle to heart, what would I do?"

"What does it mean for the way I do business?"

Thinking through the philosophical view further integrates the practices into your natural way of doing things.

In your current overload condition, however, some steps may feel like an extra burden. To reduce the techniques you must learn, feel free to skip over any questions and suggestions that donít fit your situation.

The final step for locking in techniques involves self-acceptance. Saying, "This is useful," or "I can put this to work on the Jonesí project," allows your mind to shift out of evaluation and into integration.

Remember, the goal is get you out of overload, not to endorse a system as 100% perfect. If 25% of a technique works for you, accept it. Put it to use.

The overload reduction system breaks into three core principles:

1. Central reference.
2. Engagement.
3. Physical organization.

1. Central Reference

Stray pieces of information clog your mind and thinking processes. You think more clearly if your mind is not cluttered with details.

A clear mind isn't an empty mind. You can still store knowledge, and properly organized information will flow into your mind with no overload (covered under Accelerated Learning.) Itís those dangling details that clog things up.

An example:

For a quick demonstration of the overload feeling, try to remember: your appointments for the week, each place where you ate lunch, what you had, and where you were sitting at each meal. If thatís not enough, add the details of where you parked, where you sat on the train, and so on.

Before long, you can feel a cloud moving into your head. Not much abstract thinking or good decision making is possible while youíre in this condition.

Writing down stray information clears your mind. Every item you can put down on paper is one less item you need to remember.

The next step is to collect all the information into one spot -- a Central Reference. This means writing all those flashy ideas, interesting URLís, things-to-do, and errand reminders into a single notebook. Shift everything out of your mind and into your Central Reference.

Most people maintain some form of listing/reminder system. The Central Reference concept suggests that you extend your reminders to logging every piece of information into one location. No exceptions. If it's something you want to remember, put it in the notebook. Get the best constructed notebook/binder you can find; load it with paper, and youíre off.

Short Term Memory

After jotting ideas in the notebook for a week, youíll find youíre more insightful. Not only are you clearing out distractions, but you're starting to nurture new ideas. By getting thoughts on paper quickly, you capture ideas that otherwise disappear due to short term memory. Insights begin as slight glimmers, and poof, theyíre gone. To say, "Thatís good, Iíll write it down in a minute," doesnít work. Minutes later is too long. In seconds the glimmer is gone.

Short term memory and selective perception are built-in human mechanisms that prevent you from being in constant overload. Without them, you would drive down the street and remember each road sign and person mowing the lawn. Recalling everything you notice would produce massive overload.

On the negative side, short term memory makes it difficult to recall the initial flash of a new idea. Use the notebook, and youíll be more successful at capturing these insights.

An Index

Because your notebook becomes an extension of your creative thinking, it may be a bit scattered. That's not a criticism -- the goal is to get the ideas on paper. Organization comes later.

For organizational purposes, it helps to supplement the notebook with an index that tracks the locations of your data and tools. Itís like a card catalog into your warehouse of equipment and information.

An index lists the precise location of any material that you collect and store. Electronic forms, like word processor files, allow key word searches.

Having an index takes the pressure off your notebook. Since the index provides the organization for finding things, even if it is random access, your Central Reference notebook can keep its free spirit and hint of disarray.

For example:

Tony loved his index. His filing systems never worked. It didnít matter whether it was paper, or disks, or word processing files, he always had to look in six places before he found anything. With the index, he was dead on target, every time.

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In a strange twist, Anneís notebook filled up with so many ideas she began worrying about its safety. Her notes had already supplied the content for two presentations -- losing them would be a real set back. Every Friday she photo copied that weekís scribbling. It sounded paranoid, but once her ideas were "backed up," she felt a lot better.

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Ed was not bashful: "A notebook...thatís it? I run a hundred million dollars worth of projects and youíre saying get a notebook. Thatís weak. I was expecting a cutting edge type of system."

Writing in a notebook is a simple step. Itís part of a larger system that frees your mind for decisions and organizes information in a way that accelerates learning. Every system must start somewhere. Please be patient.

Remember, the Central Reference reduces overload by getting things out of your head. Write down everything and use the index to fix locations. Chores and errands also fall into this category. Every piece of information you off-load frees you for abstract and conceptual thinking.

To help lock in the technique, ask yourself:

"How would I use this?"

"What does it mean for the way that I do business?"

"Is some part of this useful?"

2. Engagement

Engagement is the act of allowing yourself to warm up to a subject. Usually it takes a few moments for your thinking to fully shift to a new topic.

You may grasp the obvious quickly, but it takes time for the entire scope of an issue to sink in. Letting yourself focus on a single issue for fifteen minutes will surface solutions and perspectives you had never considered.

When youíre in overload, time to engage on a topic is limited. Interrupts are non-stop, and an urgent request is always in your face. Giving a problem 30 seconds attention might dispose of it, but this expediency seldom generates original thinking. As a result, your insights become far and few between, and your vision is limited.

Insight is key to growth. You need to ensure it gets woven into your daily routine. At the least, this means reserving fifteen minutes for engaging on one dilemma. Every day has ninety-six fifteen minute periods to chose from.

Pick one problem and apply fifteen minutes to it. Allow your mind to fully engage on the issue. Pay attention. Sketch out the different aspects. Arm yourself with a pad and sketch out the forces at work. Give it your complete attention.

For example:

There was something about setting aside fifteen minutes that grated on Ed. It irritated him. But each time he sat down and engaged on an issue, heíd come up with a fresh view.

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About 20 minutes into the problem, Linda realized she couldn't fight the budget limits. The battles were painful, and she hadn't won any real concessions. As she gave up on that battle, it struck her that other options existed: pulling resources from the "cash cow" and adding a bit of pad to funded projects. This was a new approach for her.

One minute taken fifteen times a day does not count as engaging. The mind needs a period of time to connect. Little pieces here and there donít work. True engagement requires fifteen minutes of focused time.

Sound strange? Try it. List out a few of your hot concerns. Get your notebook, check the time, and shut the door. Pick an item and start mulling it over -- youíve got fifteen minutes. Sketch out the forces, options...whatever surfaces. Check the results after the fifteen minutes. Youíll be surprised at the insights you generate.

Once youíve engaged a few times, itíll seem like a natural part of your problem solving. Sometimes youíll use it; other times you wonít. When youíre stuck on a problem and are going round and round, you now can say, "I havenít engaged on this. I need to sit down and give it my full attention for fifteen minutes."

Impromptu Engagement

When youíre really busy, fifteen minutes can seem like a long time. Days may go by before you can reserve a clear block of time. Are there alternatives? It begs the question of how well two minutes would work. Unfortunately, not very well. The mind really needs more than a few minutes to dig into the subtleties of a topic.

One approach, however, helps you surface quality engagement time on a regular basis. First, it assumes that even when youíre busy fifteen minute intervals pop up occasionally. Your lunch may be delayed, or traffic is backed up during the morning commute, and fifteen minutes opens up.

If you have a list of contemplation issues already prepared, you can spend the unexpected time engaging a topic instead of following the details of slow lunch service, or which lane is the fastest way around the stalled car.

Be prepared, youíll be surprised how often these impromptu engagements occur.

Because monitoring type questions are consistent, impromptu engagement times provide a good opportunity to evaluate your overload coping strategies. Make a list of six standing questions in your notebook. A typical set of evaluation questions are:

Whatís working well?
Whatís not working, and how should I adjust?
Do I have a series of coping strategies woven into my daily work?
Are there issues Iím ignoring?
Am I capturing insights as they arise?

Remember, the goal is to give your mind a chance to engage. You wonít surface insight if you tick through the items like a shopping list. Pick one and stick with it. Catch even the slightest ideas on paper or a tape recorder.

For example:

Bill found his engagement time in an unusual place, his boss' waiting area. His boss was never on time for meetings, or more politely, his earlier sessions always ran late. Since Bill met with him between four and ten times a week, it seemed like an opportunity for concentration times.

By arriving five minutes early, Bill got at least ten minutes of focus time, and the average was easily fifteen minutes. Perfect.

Insight and vision will help you rise above your situation. Individuals in overload seldom have the luxury of any insights. They only see the next problem in front of them. By preparing for Impromptu Engagement times, youíll be able to cultivate your vision in the midst of overload.

The Minimum

If you can commit to a minimum of "overload" adjustments each day, you will move forward even in the most difficult of times. Engagement times lend themselves nicely to a bare bones effort -- letís say you set your minimum at one engagement period per day. Fifteen minutes, thatís it. If you can pick a regular time, thatís best.

Getting out of overload is important. Grit your teeth and commit to one engagement period each day.

If for some reason you canít make that commitment, thatís okay for now. You may want to add one of these to your standing list of questions:

What is the smallest action I could commit to?

Forget commitment, is there some other way I can still move forward?

If you are just observing and reading this section out of curiosity, thereís good news and bad news. The good news is that those who observe before taking action are very proficient at taking in information. Observers learn a great deal. In this instance, simply understanding how engagement works will stick with you. Somewhere down the road youíll be struggling with an issue, and youíll recall the engagement process and use it to untangle your problem.

The downside of just observing is that progress can be very slow. In fact, progress will happen more by drift than intent. Add to your list:

When should I observe, and when should I act?

Again, getting out of overload is important. Grit your teeth and commit to one engagement period each day.

3. Physical Organization

Of the three core principles, physical organization is the most straight forward. And itís like painting a fence, youíll see results right away.

As things get hectic, piles of material start to grow. The "to be filed" stack is an early arrival, closely followed by: "Iíll read this later." And there is the familiar: "not sure about this, but itís too good to throw away" pile. Before long, you're faced with a forest of paper stacks, stray equipment, manuals, and demo software.

Two assumptions are important here. First, the material you've collected has value. Allow yourself to accept that. If you try to reduce the physical clutter by tossing things out, youíll find some excuse to sabotage the effort. Instead, acknowledge that these items deserve to be kept.

Secondary, your physical surroundings impact the way you think. Each piece of clutter works as a micro-attention device. Each time you enter your office, a part of your mind notices the new software, the extra cabling, the old network cards, and the screw drivers in the corner. This attention and mental effort is adding to your overload.

If you have any doubt about how well your mind is tracking all the clutter, ask yourself where something is. Chances are you can point to it, even if itís hidden under four layers of files. In fact, youíve probably bragged about how well you can find things in the seemingly sea of chaos. Your ability to find hidden material is evidence your mind is tracking these items.

Organizing Resources

Youíve already acknowledged the value of the items surrounding you. The question becomes: How can you stop tracking it mentally?

The following steps offer a plan:

1. Survey the setting. As one particular section catches your attention, give it a category name. Some type of heading that distinguishes it from the other material.

2. Establish a process for that category. What is the ideal method for handling that type of material?

3. Set that process in motion. If the answer is to put them into labeled, indexed files, do it. At the least, act on one item.

4. Write down the procedure.

Hereís a nice suggestion: Donít spend much time on this. Ten minutes at a time, max. This will increase the chance you will actually do the step a hundred fold.

Itís easy to use organizational tasks as a break from more intensive work. After an hour working on the board report, take a break and clear up one of the physical categories surrounding you.

As your office clears, youíll notice a difference. Your thinking will be sharper, and other tasks will happen more smoothly. You will have freed your mind from the responsibility of tracking all the loose material.

Take a moment and ask yourself:

How will I use this?

What does it mean in the way that I do business?

Is some part of this useful?


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