Escaping technology: information overload

There’s a guy who’s called in to the radio station I’m listening to. The
subject of the call-in is the vast amount of information that drivers have to
take in when driving – but this guy is extreme. He not only watches the road, he
keeps an eye on his Sat Nav, he has the TV playing all the time and also has DVD
players in the headrests for his passengers … and on top of this he’s on ‘hands
free’ most of the day.

However, it isn’t only in our cars that we are addicted to data. We can send
and pick up emails and voicemails, texts and faxes anywhere, anytime. We even
tote our laptops with us on holidays and it appears that many of us are on
message 24/7. So, as accountants, are we prepared for these challenges?

The answer is to get proactive. You don’t have to feel a victim of the
system. The answer for accountants and all knowledge workers is to develop their
ability to identify and sort all the knowledge they need and this just requires
disciplined thinking.

This approach is what I refer to as ‘hunter-seeker’ thinking, which helps
people navigate their way through often significant amounts of data in order to
get at the rich seams of knowledge that they need. This strategy involves
assessment, sorting, reading and harvesting techniques.

State 1: A financial document or budget report lands on your

In this first state you are in receive mode. A document, report or email
arrives and you have to determine whether it requires your attention. So your
first objective is to find out whether it needs to be read, delegated or

To help with this assessment you need to a) make a fast evaluation, b)
conduct a rapid pre-read (see box) and c) draft a skeleton mind map, a very
visual overview of the key information. These techniques will enable you to
establish what the documents are about and whether you need to give them any
further consideration.

State 2: you now have preliminary understanding of the

You now know whether the document is relevant. But you are still in
assessment mode so you have to decide whether you need to read on and, if so, at
what speed and depth.

Your strategies in this process are skimming, scanning, speed-reading and
developing a detailed mind map. The critical understanding here is that while
some documents may just need a skim you will be going through others several
times, building up greater knowledge each time.

State 3: New knowledge is assimilated

By this stage, you will have assimilated knowledge. And importantly you will
have generated, as part of this state, a robust review strategy (your detailed
mind map) which clarifies and codes all the key information you need for easy

The drafting of your mind map is also a signal that you have met your
knowledge assessment objectives and have completed the task in hand.

Assessment and evaluation are critical for managing information overload. All
of these techniques can help accountants to assess the value of the financial
reports they get sent. And the final output is the Mind Map, which summarises
and codes all that key information on a single page.

But once you have sorted out the precise information you need, how can you
remember it? We all know how much we forget in the first few days and weeks
after we have tried to absorb new information. Focusing on three areas –
imagination, association and location – can really improve our ability to recall

Imagination concerns the creative ways in which people can transform
information into memorable images. So, what makes a presentation memorable? It’s
probably one that fires your imagination through the use of key insights,
creative stories, interesting graphics and, of course, relevance to the

Association is all about the connections you make every day from one subject
to another. When it comes to memory this is a technique that you can use to grea
t advantage. To remember someone’s name, for example, all you have to do is
consciously think of an association with that name.

Location is all about physical settings. Think of a friend and the chances
are you will visualise him or her in a particular place. Forget where you left
your mobile and you will probably have to retrace your steps in your mind, going
back from place to place until you remember where you put it down. What we can
see from this is that location is an anchor for memory – and some of the most
powerful memory systems use location as their key underpinning principle.

What these three aspects share is the need in memory to stimulate interest.
If you are not interested in what you are reading then, quite simply, you won’t
remember it. In contrast, if you can develop an attitude where you are
interested in what you are learning that will allow you to maintain your
attention, engage with the material you are trying to take in, remember it and,
importantly, be able to recall it.

So do these techniques work? The evidence stacks up, and for those who want a
more positive and proactive approach to information overload, this is an
approach that appears to offer a practical and proactive solution.

The art of skim reading

You’ve just been sent a pile of hefty financial reports and budget plans but
you’ve only got a few hours before the important client meeting they relate to.
The rapid pre-reading technique allows you to distil the core information and
digest it in just 10 minutes.

• Step 1: Be clear about what information you are looking for, for example
trends, comments, statistics.

• Step 2: Turn the pages of the document every one or two seconds. Let your
eye be drawn by trigger words, facts or comments that interest you.

• Step 3: Highlight those parts that you want to explore in more detail.

• Step 4: Draft a quick Mind Map of what you have just read.

Clive Lewis is a chartered management accountant and
managing director of Illumine Training

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