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Suffering from Information Overload? Prioritize!

written by: N Nayab • edited by: Jean Scheid • updated: 6/30/2011

Improvements in communication technology and an increased thrust toward effective communication makes communication seamless, integrated, and easy but can also cause overload. The key to coping is prioritizing communications based on merits.

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    Prioritize Communications The ease of sending emails, indulging in text or voice chat and a plethora of mediums allow people to communicate more often than before. Spending too much time on such activities, however, may sap productivity and delay execution of crucial tasks. Organizational effectiveness and individual productivity requires a ranked communication process with the most important ones first, and either discard or set aside the rest or respond to as needed.

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    Modern technology allows marking emails and other communications as "important" or "high priority." Most email providers allow tagging both Technology and Communications outbound and inbox emails as High, Medium, or Low priority. Some senders, especially spammers misuse this facility, but genuine corporate senders mark a message as important only with good reason. Gmail uses its analytics to sort incoming mails as important and not important, and web filters, available with most email providers, allows blocking mails from specific sources.

    Third party applications make prioritization easy and automate the process. Taskforce, Chrome, Firefox, and Safari Extension integrates directly with Gmail inboxes and splits emails in the inbox into three categories: Information, Action, and Broadcast, which makes prioritization easy. Tools such as 5PM and others help project managers rank tasks, track time, and set priorities. Users may allow priority to communications related to such tasks.

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    Organizational Policies

    Large organizations with a comprehensive communications policy develops systems and procedures to establish communication protocols, specify the appropriate type of communication for each purpose, and prioritize communications from various sources and nature. Such systems might mandate for daily or periodic reports, with priority marked calls to actions or deliverables, allow for specific review meetings that focus on determining priorities, and more.

    People very high in large organizations may have hotlines, or dedicated lines of communication open to specific people, and any communication using the hotlines is a high priority. During the days of the cold war, the President of the United States had a hotline with the Premier of Russia, for example. Large corporations and projects may install such hotlines for use only in emergencies and when the communication requires priority over everything else. For instance, the operations command of a building construction may have both a hotline and a normal communication channel, with the hotline used only in extreme emergencies such as accidents, gas leaks, or anything else that requires immediate attention.

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    Sender Cues

    Developments in technology notwithstanding, one sure and foolproof way of stating the priority of a communication is sender contacting the recipient to convey the importance. The sender may follow up an email requesting a report with a phone call or a text message asking the recipient to check the email and reply promptly, to comply with an impending deadline.

    Prefix the words “IMPORTANT" or “URGENT" in the subject or first line as an alternative to in-build prioritizing tools for emails. Bold or capitalize important portions of the message text to indicate high priority.

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    Rule of Thumb

    Most people outside the ambit of organization-dictated policies prioritize communication using informal rule of thumb methods, applying their experience and knowledge to select what ranks important and what does not subjectively. For instance, many people would treat an email from the boss as a priority and try to comply or reply to it first before processing to any other email, whereas others would treat each email by its merit regardless of the sender. The latter category may for instance, process an email from a junior system administrator requesting black listing certain websites that may compromise network security first before replying to the bosses' request for a routine update.

    Prioritize Communications Many people prioritize on deadlines and visibility rather than on importance. For instance, a status report on a day when nothing worth reporting happened may take priority over calling up a potential customer simply because of the impending deadline for the report, vis-à-vis no laid down deadline for calling the customer. This is a classic case of the system impeding the objective rather than facilitating the same. Every second delayed in connecting with the customer increases the risk of competitors connected first and striking a deal, when the deadline notwithstanding, the manager would not even access the inbox until the next morning.

    People also tend to process pressing communications first. How many times have you faced annoyance when you painstakingly took an appointment and traveled to meet a person face-to-face, only for the person to ignore you and attend to the telephone? The telephone invariably gets priority as it cries for attention, even when the caller tries to sell a credit card to the CEO of a bank. Make sure to determine priority and stick with it. Cut the phone except in that rare case when you are expecting a high-stakes incoming call, for a face-to-face conversation usually happens only when the matter requires high priority in the first place.

    Most people prefer the easy over the difficult. For instance, how may times have you preferred to process easy emails or talk to people with whom you have a rapport first, when such emails or conversations could wait, and difficult emails that require some painstaking search for records, or talking to someone with whom you argued last week is of utmost importance and a greater priority?

    Effective communications requires prioritizing on importance rather than on convenience.

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