Tackling Information Overload
Paula J. Hane
Posted On May 4, 2009
The subject line grabbed my attention-"Information Overload: The Impact on the Organization." The thought of spending time listening to the webcast was itself pressure. But I was feeling particularly overloaded that day, so I registered for the free event from the nonprofit group calling itself the Information Overload Research Group (IORG; http://iorgforum.org). A key company in the organization is Basex, Inc. (www.basex.com), which describes itself as a "knowledge economy research firm" that serves IT vendors and buyers with an expertise in knowledge worker management and productivity. Here's the compelling statistic: Basex estimates, based on data it has gathered, that information overload costs the U.S. economy a minimum of $900 billion a year in lost productivity and reduced innovation. That's a big number.
Jonathan B. Spira, CEO and chief analyst at Basex as well as director and VP of research for IORG, first set the stage in the webcast with an overview of the problem-I needed no convincing. He describes information overload as "too much of a good thing." Our current work environments comprise a plurality of knowledge workers. And, as knowledge workers, we search for information, create information, re-create, communicate and collaborate, and network. We deal with abstract work and an exponential increase in content exacerbated by ubiquitous connectivity. (See this chart about the increase in information generation.) Too much information makes us feel overwhelmed and unproductive. And, with the unsettled economy causing staff reductions, many workers are trying to do more with less and feeling even more inundated by the load.
Here's how we knowledge workers spend our days, according to Basex:
28%-Unnecessary interruptions followed by "recovery time" to get back on track
20%-Meetings-some productive, some not
15%-Searching for information (and an estimated 50% of searches fail)
12%-Thinking and reflecting
I was startled by that first number-nearly a third of our time wasted!
Some of the most interesting research was presented by Gloria Mark, a professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California-Irvine. Her current research projects focus around multitasking in the workplace. Over the past several years, she has been studying the different ways that knowledge workers experience disruptions in their work due to multitasking and interruptions. She and other researchers actually shadowed 36 people in their workplace for several days, recording and timing all their actions to the second. Here's another startling number-they found that people spend only about 3 minutes on average on a task before switching tasks or being interrupted. Of course, if the tasks relate to the same context or project that might not be so bad. They also found that physically co-located workers spend longer chunks of times engaged in peripheral tasks (those for which they aren't accountable) and experience significantly more interruptions. It made me grateful for my telecommuting/solo office work arrangement.
Spira says that an important part of changing this picture is getting people to understand how their actions impact others. Don't hit "Reply all" on email unless it's necessary. Think before interrupting others-in person, by phone, or by email. I'd say another key thing is actively minimizing your own distractions-turn off email notifications, don't feel you have to respond to phone calls or email immediately if it interrupts an important task, and actively work to carve out uninterrupted chunks of time. I've actually done some of these things since thinking about this-and it helps!
As for dealing with the onslaught of incoming content, I found some of the suggestions helpful in a presentation by marketing specialist Louis Gray (www.slideshare.net/louisgray/there-is-no-information-overload?type=powerpoint). He reminded me of some of the very points I've made to others when asked how I keep up with news in the industry. Let tools do the work-use alerts, RSS feeds, organizers, search tools, etc. He says, "You control the volume." So unsubscribe from lists, drop irrelevant feeds, use smart filtering, and "skim like mad."
If you are curious about your organization's exposure to information overload, visit the Basex Information Overload Calculator at www.iocalculator.com. The calculator allows you to estimate the impact of the problem on your own organization.
As an article in The New York Times noted, "The calculator appears to be a bit gimmicky and simplistic. For instance, it generalizes about the potential productivity losses to companies based on just a handful of criteria, like what industry they are in, how many employees they have, and how skilled they are (highly skilled, manual labor, etc.)." However, the article says the Basex work on information overload underscores a serious subject-one that many companies are talking about and one that many of us grapple with daily.
Check out the IORG's resource center at http://iorgforum.org/ResourceCenter.htm. It offers links to some interesting research papers on email overload and interruptions and distractions and links to other sites of interest. One link is to the Xerox Corp., which takes this seriously enough that it offers its own site with resources to help in coping with information overload (www.xerox.com/information-overload/enus.html). The company's director of corporate PR even has a blog called Information Sanity (http://informationsanity.blogs.xerox.com).
Late last year, Xerox scientists who study the future of work put out a list of simple ways to save time and to manage information overload. They warrant a brief recap here:
1. Breathe-Schedule breaks in your work routine.
2. Simplify your schedule-Schedule meetings on specific days, leaving others free.
3. Back it up-'Nuff said.
4. Declutter your desktop (both of them).
5. Touch it once-and respond, file, or delete.
6. Forget the free stuff (choose quality over quantity).
7. Use your tools, such as your smartphone.
8. RSS reprieve-Sign up with an aggregator.
9. Manage mobile madness-Use a mobile device and deal with things as they arise.
Intel, a company with 86,300 employees, sees information overload as a serious problem. "At Intel we estimated the impact of information overload on each knowledge worker at up to eight hours a week," said Nathan Zeldes, a principal engineer focusing on computing productivity issues at Intel and founding chairman of IORG. "We continuously look at applying new work behaviors that can help reduce its impact."
Finally, as I was researching this topic, I ran across a new application called Smart Desktop (www.smartdesktop.com) that is currently in a controlled beta release. The site says the Microsoft Windows application uses machine intelligence to automatically organize your information into projects and then enables a powerful search capability. But here's the cool part-Smart Desktop automatically records the time that accrues as you work with your items, enabling you to create detailed project and time management reports you can use to audit your time and generate billing reports. This sounds intriguing enough that I'll keep an eye on its development.
Here's to staying organized and productive!