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Big Ideas

Stop the Insanity: How To Crush Communication Overload

Are you constantly playing catch-up with a million different messages? It's time to take back control of our communications. Here's how.

Tina Roth Eisenberg of Swiss Miss recently declared that she had reached a personal communication crisis: “Too many channels. Too many messages. Too much noise. Too much guilt… The world sends me tweets, direct messages, texts, chats with me on skype, sends me Facebook emails (!) and actual mail and also calls me… Responding on all these channels is a full time job, extremely distracting and exhausting. I feel constantly behind.”

Amen, Swiss Miss. I doubt I know a single person who can’t relate. Communication overload is an all-too-familiar sentiment in the 21st century. We feel anxious, we feel overburdened, and, most of all, we feel overwhelmed. If we could spend all day just responding to the incoming messages we receive, when does the REAL WORK get done? How can we find enough time in the day?Complaints about “information overload” date back as far as the invention of the Gutenberg press (“What are we supposed to do with all these books?!”), and we’re experiencing similar anxiety in the face of a wave of new devices and social media tools. While it may be natural to take a “poor me!” approach to communication overload, it’s foolish to pretend our own output doesn’t play a huge role in what comes back to us.

As a recent Boston Globe piece points out, it takes two to tango:

A new technology does not act alone, after all, but in concert with our ambitions for it. Overload has long been fueled by our own enthusiasm — the enthusiasm for accumulating and sharing knowledge and information, and also for experimenting with new forms of organizing and presenting it.

We’ll interrupt dinner to send a “quick email” on our phones, check into Foursquare as we settle in for a beer at the local bar, or tweet a picture of a memorable experience as it’s happening. We gorge ourselves on communication in the now. Then, later we complain about our overflowing inboxes as if there were no connection.

It’s time to take responsibility for our communications. And I don’t mean “take responsibility” in the sense of taking on another distasteful chore, I mean “take responsibility” as a means of declaring your power over your communications. As Stephen Covey uses it when he says, “Look at the word responsibility – “response-ability” – the ability to choose your response.”

Whenever someone sends us a message, we always have a choice. Do we respond? And if so, how? Below are a few tips on sorting out the IFs and the HOWs of responding:

Step 1: Define your rules of engagement.

Every message is not created equal. To separate the wheat from the chaffe, you need to create a set of communication “rules” that relate to your objectives. How many hours are you willing to spend responding to emails and social media messages? Who are the colleagues, clients, and contacts that you need to take care of to move your business forward?

Anything can be a rule: They can be time-based, situation-based, contact-based. For instance, one of my time-based rules is that I don’t respond to emails before 12pm when I’m focused on writing. A situation-based rule could be that I will not respond (beyond a simple request for clarification) to any email that does not have a clearly articulated, actionable request. A contact-based rule would be that I respond to my in-office colleagues as a top priority above everyone else.

The main goal is you have some criteria for swiftly deciding whether or not to respond to a message; and if you plan to respond, how quickly must it be?

Every message is not created equal.

Step 2: Organize a system to execute on your rules.

Maybe you already have a good idea of who is important in your communication hierarchy. Most of us do. But where we often fall down on the job is doing the organizational grunt work to facilitate the execution of those rules. What does that mean? It means setting up your Gmail, your Twitter, your Facebook, your LinkedIn, and so on in such a way that you have to do as little work as possible to get to the “good” or “valuable” messages.There are many, many ways to do this – it just depends on what works for you. For email, I use Gmail’s “priority inbox” because it’s a no-brainer to setup and it smartly bubbles up more “urgent” messages – those from key contacts – to the top of my screen, while shunting less important messages (e.g. subscription-based emails, auto-notifications, etc) below the fold. In this great HBR post, Alexandra Samuel describes how to configure your Twitter account for maximum efficiency and value. Or maybe you want to consolidate all of your social media updates into a single digest email with NutshellMail? Lifehacker can tell you how.

Where we often fall down on the job is doing the organizational grunt work.

Step 3: Share your rules and set expectations.

With new communication channels coming online every day, there’s no great baseline for communication etiquette right now. And worse: There’s not going to be any time soon. Given this situation, our greatest weapon is setting expectations. One of the best ways to do this is by re-thinking how (and where) you share your contact information.Let’s take Study Hacks author Cal Newport as an example. Here’s his About page. First, rather than just give a contact email, Cal clarifies how he communicates (e.g. very judiciously). Second, he parses out the different channels for inquiries (one for advice, one for opportunities, and one for advertising); behind the scenes, he no doubt has different priorities for how he checks these email accounts. Thirdly, he includes a wishlist for the types of opportunities he’s interested in.

Our greatest weapon is setting expectations.

So, when I emailed Cal to ask if he wanted to contribute to 99U, my expectations were set. He didn’t have anything on his opportunities list about wanting to guest blog, so there wouldn’t have been any hard feelings if I’d never heard a peep. Then, when he did respond, I was thrilled.Of course, your contact page is not the only opportunity for setting expectations. In your office, you can set expectations with your colleagues by “over-sharing” on your meeting calendar. Planning to devote tomorrow morning to 3 hours of deep thinking about the future of the business? Put it on your calendar. Now everyone knows what you’re doing behind that closed door, and they’ll be less likely to interrupt you.

Step 4: Actively prune your communication channels.

A communication channel can be anything from an email list subscription to your Twitter profile to your new Spotify account. Basically anything that has your contact info and might be sending you updates. It’s great to experiment with new social media platforms as they come online to see if they’re right for you. At the same time, you should be constantly pruning your “stable” of profiles. Never read your Daily Candy emails anymore? Unsubscribe. Checked in a few times on Foursquare but couldn’t stick with it? Delete that profile.

To ensure that the influx of messages is never too great, we have to be constantly assessing which channels are providing meaningful value in our lives and in our work. If there’s no value, it’s just a time and attention suck that we need to get rid of. What’s more, it doesn’t do your business or your reputation any good to have outdated profiles floating around in cyberspace!


As Seth Godin wrote recently, “We don’t need more time, we just need to decide.” This is as true for managing our communications as it is for any other situation. To stop the insanity, we have only to make some hard decisions – decisions about who, when, what, where, and how we respond.

What’s Your Approach?

How do you keep the communications craziness manageable? Share your tips and tricks in the comments.

More Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (18)
  • Dan Peck

    Great job, you could join DigitalSilence 26th-28th March! helping #EarthHour, join in 3 days without technology

    3 days is a challenge but just think of what you could achieve in that time!


    Excellent article! This points out that the communication overload is really the responsibility of the person who bears it. I think one of the most important rules is Step 3 – to set expectations for those who communicate with you. Often times, the overload comes from the guilt in feeling the need to respond to every individual that communicates with you. If those individuals reduce their expectations, any response will be even more greatly appreciated.

  • Ethan Dahlin Magoon

    I use AMO ( to organize my day! Works great to organize those emails and communications that don’t need to be immediately replied to.

    Good Luck Everyone!

  • John Fitzgerald

    Good pointers here. Managing expectations is absolutely key. You can do this in a very proactive way, something as simple as ‘here is the latest draft of the project. I’m not available tomorrow morning, but I have free time tomorrow afternoon, so let’s discuss revisions then’ gives your client the cue to not expect an instant/overnight response.

    Am also a big advocate of the single inbox for multiple accounts routine – easy to implement on BlackBerry and Mac Mail, amongst others. This means you avoid the trap of constantly ‘peeping’ at different accounts in case something new has come in.

  • Matthew

    Thanks for this. Setting expectations and communicating them well is a great suggestion. Out with anxiety, in with self-empowerment.

  • hugo

    Great article and thank you for responding so swiftly to Tina’s “Communication Crises” post.

    This is indeed a huge pain for people who communicate across many channels or have a lot of inbound requests. We are building to solve this problem for ourselves. It is a simple tool to tell the world how and when to contact us. Like you, we realized that we need to communicate “rules of engagement”, what we call protocol, but then also share those preferences and set expectations accordingly. We figured that we can do the latter in our email signatures and with a short url than can be put in status windows on skype/gchat etc.

    Please check out It is stil lin beta but we would love your feedback on it. Examples can be seen here: and here:

  • Martin

    Nice tips, for once an article that tips you on personal organization without promoting an new software. Post-its being the best organisation software ever…

  • GraphicDesignBoss

    Pruning your incoming channels is easier said than done. How do you cut off one channel that has previously been open?

  • nupurmaskara

    You read my mind. I was thinking of assigning a fixed period of time everyday for social media. Need to make it more efficient though. Am getting better at filtering. Thumb rule- when my brain says enough, I stop. Like eating:)

  • nerdyherdy

    I really don’t have problem reading different media in HTC they all come in one feed, you should try that. You can easily skip through people or msgs you don’t want to read 🙂

  • Dan Peck

    Why not try DigitalSilence-Lite – 3hours without technology –
    You don’t have to be a slave to your digital world. You choose how you control your day.

  • Zmarash

    can you please tell me what happens when people experience communication overload? can you please describe at least three ways we can respond? can you tell me how can this be a problem in customer service?

  • Salvatory Carlino

    I once read a funny webcomic that relates to this. It’s a story about procrastination. Because the character had to manage a lot of social media, he failed to do his assignment. I guess a trusty phone system that de-clutters your en masse info must be used.

  • Blake203

    Your get what you put in, stop texting, going on facebook, and twittering so much and you will see a drastic reduction in the amount of communication overload you have

  • Cathy Tibbles

    I can’t believe the amount of articles coming at me lately about TIme management – and how very timely they are (personally)!! THank you for the tips and the links to more indepth – how-to type of stuff.  I found HBR twitter article really helpful too. 

  • TomDark9

    How about you just back off from it now and then?  It’s not like having to go to the bathroom or earning your bread and butter. 

    Werks fer me. 

  • Ken

    I recently tried to take inventory of all my online accounts, hoping to delete/unsubscribe old profiles. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is a daunting task; and it’s extremely aggravating when sites don’t offer a way to remove yourself from their database.

    Does anyone know of any apps or tools for this? Any previous experience?

  • Yolk Recruitment

    Great tips. Email was both a good thing and bad thing for recruitment. Yes it allowed us to deal with a larger amount of applications in a more systematic way but resulted in candidates switching off.

    Sending an email for a job and then never following it up isn’t going to get you far and it applies to all aspect of business. We don’t hide behind emails and send rejection letters, we get on the phones and give them positive feedback.

    Face to face and verbal communication is still the most effective way to really get to know someone and build a professional relationship.

    We’ve decided to old a little experiment by turning off our emails for a week and seeing if it can boost productivity. You can find out more here http://emailepidemic.yolkrecru

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