Clear your desk and beat information overload  (5-step system included).

You have a rare window of spare time and a pile of reading labelled “I’ll get to it”. Do you get through it? Or do you give in, hide in the canteen, fill your mug with something triple caffeinated, and pretend the world can go by without you?

You don’t have to choose; you can do both.

Below is a five-step system that will give you the skills you need to clear your desk, manage new incoming information, and stop information overload taking over again.

So, take five minutes to read this post… clear your inbox… then kick back, relax, fill a mug with something delicious, and watch the world go by.


Before we get to the five steps, I want to take a minute to talk about what created the “I’ll get to it” pile in the first place.

If you always have more reading than time, then you’re probably stuck on one (or all) of the following:

  1. You’ve got control issues (that’s OK).
  2. You’re an epic procrastinator (that’s OK too).
  3. You’re a hoarder (most folks are when it comes to information).
  4. You prioritise everything instead of some things (almost everyone does this).
  1. Control freak, anyone?

If your reading pile at work is always so big that you never have time to read what feeds your soul, then take a moment to look at what that pile contains. Chances are, much of what fills your inbox or litters your desk is “other people’s business”.

If that’s true for you, then answer the following questions honestly:

  • Is it you or other people you’re worried about?
  • Is it your competence or theirs?

If you have to know everything (not really possible) then be satisfied with knowing where to find the information when you need it, rather than trying to keep it all in your head. Let it go. Trust one universal truth: the information that comes to your desk today will probably be out of date next month, so relax.

  1. Procrastination:

There are two causes of procrastination when it comes to information overload: fear or a lack of interest.

Fear: Also known as “I have no idea how to handle this amount of stuff!” Instead of letting your imagination drive you into a corner, determine exactly what you have to get through. Once you’ve done that, sort the material into four piles: must read, useful, file and bin. Then, using the five steps below, focus on the “must read” pile only.

Lack of interest: Find something in the material that motivates and interests you. If you can find nothing and your desk is always full of that kind of paperwork, you might want to consider a different job. Just saying… it’s worth a thought… you’ve probably had it already.

  1. You like to keep stuff… and that’s ok.

Some folk like to hold onto information. Sod’s law… the day you throw something away is the day you need it. If this is you, then accept it. Treat all that paperwork like furniture. The crazy thing is that as long as people don’t mess with your “filing” system, you know what every document is and where to find it. So be OK with this personality quirk. Unless it’s stopping you being a productive human being. Then apply the five-step system to everything.

  1. Prioritisation might be an issue.

If you’re not a hoarder and the information littering your space really does need to be read, absorbed and acted on, then the five-step system will help you prioritise what you need first, then second… allowing you to get through it all without feeling like a beetle playing chicken with a bulldozer.


This system is based on a process of highlighting the information you require and eliminating the rest.

Step 1: Prepare. This is the most important step – don’t miss it out!

As you pick up each document, take a moment to answer these two questions:

  • What do you already know about this subject?
  • What do you still need to know?

Once you have answers to those questions, decide what your purpose is: do you want general information or the answer to a specific question?

Establishing your purpose is essential. When you know why you are reading something, your concentration, retention and subsequent recall will increase exponentially.

Step 2: Get an overview.

Once you have established your purpose take a minute to leaf through the document for any information that’ll give you an overview of what it’s about: read the back cover and inside flaps, the table of contents, index, and bibliography. Then, look at the chapter headings, sub-headings, graphics. Also, look at how many blank pages or spaces there are. The document might not be as big as it appears!

As you flip through the document, use a pencil or post-it note to do the following:

  • Highlight sections that may contain relevant information
  • Eliminate sections that definitely don’t

For the rest of the 5-step system, do not revisit sections you have eliminated.

Step 3: Quick scan with purpose.

If your purpose is clear, you will know what you are looking for, and words related to your area of interest will stand out. So, with your purpose in mind, flip through the material at about one second per page looking for any words or phrases that stand out. Highlight these sections. DO NOT STOP TO READ! If you find that you’re getting pulled into certain sections, mark them as especially relevant and move on. The aim is to get an overview of the whole document as quickly as possible.

Depending on the length of the document, you might have everything you need already. If so, stop now, file or bin the document. If you still need more information, move onto step 4.

Step 4: Selective reading.

Even vaguely well-written material will contain key information in the first paragraph of each section and in the first sentence of each paragraph. For more insight into the content:

  1. Read the first paragraph in every chapter or section.
  2. Read the first sentence of every paragraph. If the paragraph is very long, read the last sentence as well.

Step 5: Active reading

By now you will be familiar with the layout, language and content of the material and be in a position to select what you genuinely need or want to read. Even if you need to read the entire document, the speed at which you’ll be able to read will be vastly increased because you’ll have been through it at so many levels already.


Apply the 5-steps in an emergency.

Have you ever been given five minutes to study a document you are expected to speak knowledgeably about to people who have had the day to read it?

Don’t panic – use the 5-steps.

  1. Purpose: What do already know? What do you need to know?
  2. Overview: Read summaries and conclusions.
  3. Active Read: With your purpose in mind, flip through the document to find significant keywords, graphics, tables or phrases. Pay attention to anything in bold or italic.
  4. Selective Read: Read the first and last paragraphs of each section and the first sentence of each paragraph.
  5. Relax: You’ve probably read more than anyone else in the room!

Five step system

Five step system