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Too much information: The lowdown on data

Data, data, data. The core of business, the crux upon which we build our lives. In our connected world, hardly a decision is made without some sort of data analysis. As statistician W. Edwards Deming said, “In God we trust. All others must bring data.” With the internet population now making up half of our global population and almost two thirds of those active on social media — we create and share more content today than ever before. We can track our steps, our health metrics, our sleep, our children, how we are using our time (down to the minute), as well as every aspect of business analytics we might find useful, and even some that may not be particularly useful.

We are past the point of recognizing the value of technology in its ability to capture and analyze data. Some would suggest that we put too much emphasis on that initially and now we have an excess, a glut of information that will go nowhere and inform nothing. But still, we capture it. And in that mountain of numbers, one thing is becoming increasingly obvious- how do we manage to stay sane and not become overwhelmed with the data?

Well, evidence thus far is showing that we aren’t coping with it all that well. One study conducted in Britain indicated that over one-third of individuals feel that today’s “information overload” has them more stressed, anxious, and unable to relax. And almost two-thirds indicated that the need to keep track of all the data in their lives is a “major concern.” Many feel overwhelmed, bogged down in the minutiae, constantly counting and collecting just because they can — and feel somehow that they should.  So, how do we manage this? How do we not  get lost down the rabbit hole?

Let’s break it down. Data, and especially tracking data, is numerical, quantitative, logical. Every decision should be rooted in logic though, right? Well, not really. Aristotle asserted that there were 3 modes of persuasion and people should make decisions based upon the quality of either one, or a combination of them all. He named these modes ethos, pathos and logos. Ethos refers to the personal character of the speaker (and Aristotle considered this the most important: credibility, authority, trustworthiness). Pathos refers to the emotional element of the situation, and logos relies on evidence or facts. The thing is, tracking data uses only logos, and yet we find ourselves using it to make most decisions (important decisions) today. This ignores the other areas of our brains that sometimes long for the days when numbers were only a part of the picture – and human instinct, experience and good old fashioned common sense helped make up the rest.

So, how do we avoid burnout, while still lending weight to the data that does contribute to good decision-making in both our personal and professional lives? First, we must act as our own filters. In previous times, when computing capabilities were much lower, it was necessary to identify what  metrics were useful when faced with any problem, and then the resources were allocated to collecting that information. Now, we have almost infinite computing capabilities and can easily collect all of the metrics. In the absence of needing to ask why, it is too easy to forget what we were seeking. I suggest you write this down somewhere and refer to it often: Useful data answers a question. Collecting information for the sake of having information is fine, but don’t burden your brain with irrelevant numbers!

It’s going to become increasingly important for people to consciously step back and look at the bigger picture of any situation. Numbers are a part of every story, but they don’t capture the full story and sometimes they miss the overarching point entirely. Stare at the numbers for too long and you won’t see the forest for the trees. Those who use effective analytical tools but also remember to frequently step back from the data to look at the greater picture, are far more likely to gain important insights.

And brace yourself, because none of this is slowing down anytime soon. Experts predict a 4,300 percent increase in annual data production by 2020!  We also have Moores law that dictates computing capabilities will double every two years (while typically also experiencing a 50% cost reduction). Seems certain that our exposure to ‘information overload’ and its corresponding increase in stress levels is only going to get worse. The question of what data we need, and what data we ignore must merit more attention. When Carly Fiorina was with Hewlitt-Packard, she said, “The goal is to turn data into information, and information into insight.” Keep these words with you, and remember that data itself is not the end goal. Its only value occurs when it solves a problem. If it doesn’t do that, scrap it!

Sarah Pearce is a professional speaker, business coach, social strategist and author of Online Reputation: Your Most Valuable Asset in a Digital Age.
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