Are you often faced with so many details and priorities that it feels impossible to sort out what to do next? You’re managing personal commitments along with self care, serving your clients and/or colleagues and trying to keep current with your industry, all while fulfilling your mission in the world.

Information overload literally means that your brain is trying to look at more than it can store in short term memory at any one time.

One of my favorite stories is about a Buddhist scholar who visited a revered Zen monk. While the monk was preparing tea, the scholar began talking about his studies and all he had learned so far. The scholar went on and on about his accomplishments while the old monk quietly listened and began pouring the tea.

As the scholar continued speaking, he suddenly was aghast to notice that the tea was overflowing and spilling into his lap. The scholar jumped up and yelled, “You idiot! What are you doing? Stop!” and the monk replied, “A cup that is already full has no room to receive.

The phrase “my cup runneth over” from the Hebrew Bible describes the state of an abundant heart, but our rational minds need something different to be in their optimal flow. While our hearts have the potential to live in the unbounded state of our right brains, our intellects need to execute tasks within the practical limitations of time and space.  Our minds lose their way when there’s too much mental clutter.

Think of the difference between walking into a room piled high with objects on every available surface versus entering a spaciously organized room. If you had to find something quickly, which room would you prefer to search?

Information overload is part of today’s hectic world, so it takes a proactive strategy to keep on top of incoming information and navigate the flood coming your way. Otherwise you will be distracted much of the time, or perhaps even completely derailed from your path to having a bigger impact in the world.

There is a high cost to not being able to focus and follow through on what matters most — missed opportunities to make a difference. Instead, imagine receiving the perfect amount of nourishing information with a mind clear and open for what is possible next.

Here is how to keep your mind in optimal flow:

  1. Clear space in your calendar to review all the details in your life that you are currently managing, ideally a one-hour appointment with yourself, although even one-half hour can make a difference.
  2. Make a list of all your current information sources and priority generators. What are you taking in and sorting through every day, every week?
  3. Rate each one of these items on a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 means the information is mission-critical and 1 means rarely useful. For example, if you’ve chosen them wisely, following your mentors, teachers, family and close friends would be high priority. Blogs and newsletters that haven’t given you anything useful for six months would go in the lowest priority category #1. Be ruthless and honest with yourself here. Stop hanging on to the thought, “This might be useful someday.” If you’re serious about fulfilling your mission, you literally don’t have time for those distractions any more.
  4. Based on the number of items on your list, find the best place to draw the lines between “I’m keeping these,” “I’ll look at / listen to these less often” and “I’m letting these go.” You could serve the middle category by replacing live updates with daily/weekly digests, for example, or even eliminating notifications in favor of browsing the information online when you have time.
  5. Make peace with the fact that your priorities and even your direction will change over time. Therefore it’s important to not go on auto-pilot with your priorities, which would be a disservice to everyone involved. If you are feeling a need for a change, it’s most likely that the others involved are as well.

The final piece of this system is to remember to regularly schedule the time in your calendar to re-assess and cull your sources – I recommend monthly or quarterly — otherwise your potential new direction will turn into nothing more than another great idea that never took flight.

Imagine having an uncluttered path and a clear way forward, like a breath of fresh air lightening your workday. There’s no time like the present; start prioritizing and culling now!