Monthly Archives: February 2011

Info overload blamed for memory loss and, uh, something else

Information overload has never had a stellar rep, but it really needs a good PR firm now. A new study has blamed it for inability to remember everything from PIN numbers to why you walked into the kitchen.

Says The Daily Mail:

According to doctors at CPS Research, a Glasgow-based clinical trials company, the syndrome is caused by hectic lives bombarded with information overload from mobile phones, BlackBerrys, TV, radio and the internet. ‘We believe there are widespread signs of the problem,’ says spokeswoman Angela Scott-Henderson. ‘Our attention spans and concentration levels are going down. It’s getting to be more common, affecting people at younger ages.’

The Scottish researchers have dubbed the problem “Busy Lifestyle Syndrome.”

But wait.  There’s more.

In a Daily Beast article called “Twittered into Paralysis,” Sharon Begley describes yet another study—from the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University.  It says that Facebook, Twitter and countless smartphone apps have had an unintended consequence—our overloaded brains freeze when we have to make decisions:

Trying to drink from a firehose of information has harmful cognitive effects. And nowhere are those effects clearer, and more worrying, than in our ability to make smart, creative, successful decisions.

The research should give pause to anyone addicted to incoming texts and tweets. The booming science of decision-making has shown that more information can lead to objectively poorer choices, and to choices that people come to regret. It has shown that an unconscious system guides many of our decisions, and that it can be sidelined by too much information. And it has shown that decisions requiring creativity benefit from letting the problem incubate below the level of awareness-—something that becomes ever more difficult when information never stops arriving.

It’s serious stuff and provides fresh new ammunition for anyone looking to make the business case for fighting information overload.


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Inbox Love: A day-long download on email

It may have been all about email, but you could never have emailed the full impact of “Inbox Love” — nearly 10 hours of presentations, elbow-rubbing, demos, discussions and debates. The event took place at the Microsoft Conference Center in Mountain View, California, and was chock-full of insights about the medium we love to hate.

Jeff Bonforte, CEO of Xobni (that’s “Inbox” spelled backward), called email your “personal Wikipedia”—an incredible storage locker that knows you better than you know yourself. His company mines your email for contacts and typically find more than 5,000. Whether they’re candidates for Facebook friending is up to you.

Victoria Belotti, principal scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center, said email is the “Grand Central Station for knowledge work.” She says, like Twitter, email is like a river flowing underneath a bridge. When emails disappear and important items are forgotten, “this causes a huge amount of stress.” She also said email is not designed to do all we ask of it—and it’s a poor substitute for what it replaces.

Will the inbox die? “Stop it,” said Bonforte. “It should not only not die . . . it should get bigger.”

Belotti’s view: “Email is still going strong even with kids, but especially in the enterprise. Most people aren’t overloaded, but power users are drowning.” This presents several opportunities for entrepreneurs to consider: Constant multitasking, obligation management, managing content and critical information, “task vistas,” and application switching and window management.

Jonathan Spira, CEO of Basex and author of the forthcoming book “Overload,”disagreed with Belotti. “There are 79.7 million knowledge workers at a wide range of levels. All our research tells us that in their own world relative to what they expect, they’re overloaded.”

Knowledge workers lose 20-25 percent of their day to overload without even realizing it. Information overload also includes search—50 percent of which fail, said Spira. Basex estimates that all this costs the U.S. economy nearly $1 trillion per year.

Pierre Khawand, CEO of People-OnTheGo, said if you break down the knowledge worker’s day, he/she spends 3.27 hours on email and 1.18 hours on social media—leaving less than half the workday for focused work. His company just published a report on the impact of email and social media called “The New New Inbox.”

Inbox Love and hate mail (complete wrap of the day by Chris Nuttall at FT Tech Hub)

E-mail innovator pitches self-deleting e-mails (Rafe Needleman, CNET)

Watch the morning sessions

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Filed under Email management, Impacts on society, Information Overload Research Group, Personal productivity, Research

Going under

The New York Post just published a well-written overview of information overload titled Going under: Information overload is drowning office workers. Reporter Chris Erikson included two of my favorite statistics—that knowledge workers lose up to 28 percent of their time to overload of various types, at a cost of just under US $1 trillion per year.  He also rounded up some tips to cut the glut.

Two other worthwhile collections of pointers:

Email Etiquette for the Super-Busy by Jocelyn Glei at

10 Ways to Multitask Better by Rick Newman, chief business correspondent at US News

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174 newspapers a day?

Could you keep up with 174 newspapers a day?  A new study from the University of Southern California says that’s how much new information is sent via broadcast technology every day—for every person on the planet.  Each of us also communicates six 85-page newspapers worth of information.

“If I would store all this information in CD-ROMs, I could make a pile that goes from here to the moon and one quarter of the distance beyond,” says Martin Hilbert, who led the study.  Hilbert is a doctoral candidate at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.

As of 2007, each of us also had around 600,000 books’ worth of info stored in the world’s technological devices. All told, the stored data totaled 295 exabytes—or 29,500,000,000,000,000,000,000 pieces of information.  This represents about 80 times more information per person than was ever stored in the historic Library of Alexandria in Egypt, Hilbert told eWeek. The actual number for 2011 is likely to be much higher.

Each of these articles has a somewhat different slant on the study:

Welcome to the Information Age—174 newspapers a day (The Telegraph, London)

Digital world growing faster every year (ABC News, Australia)

Global storage capacity totals 295 exabytes (eWeek)

How much information is there in the world? (USC News)

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Information overload: New study pinpoints causes

Basex, the New York-based research firm, says it has a better handle on what causes information overload. In a post on, senior analyst Cody Burke says a new survey now in the field focuses on the “personal sources of information overload that knowledge workers deal with.”  Says Burke:

The survey is ongoing but some of our preliminary findings are quite interesting, and worth sharing:

  • By far the greatest perceived cause of Information Overload is e-mail, with over 66% of the votes for the number one cause being for e-mail.
  • The second largest source is a dead tie between interruptions and social networking sites, both at 20%.
  • Rounding out the top four is required reading (online and offline) at 23%.

We are also seeing trends emerging when we ask what the greatest enabler of Information Overload in the last two years has been.  Many respondents are selecting “Access to greater amounts information” as both the number one, and the number two factors.  This is interesting because many people who did not select it as their number one choice went on to select it as their second choice, reflecting the scale of the problem.

Thus far, we are also seeing a clear favorite method of reducing Information Overload.  When asked what the number one thing that could be done in their organization to combat Information Overload was, over 50% of the responses were to send fewer e-mail messages.

We would like to share our favorite comment from a survey taker with you. When asked what would help reduce Information Overload, he said the following: ‘Have someone else read everything for me.'”

Burke asks that you take the Basex survey on information overload. His company will update its findings soon.

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Six “must reads” about information overload

If you want to get up to speed on information overload, what should you read first? Here are six of the best pieces I’ve encountered to date:

Meet the Lifehackers (New York Times Magazine, October 2005) — This is the article that got me started on the quest to quash information overload.

10 Proposals for Fixing the E-Mail Glut (New York Times Bits Blog, December 2009)

Be Heard, Understood and Remembered in an Overloaded Environment (Communication World, International Association of Business Communicators, July 2009)

E-mail’s Friendly Fire (Wall Street Journal)

Your Brain on Computers: Addicted to Technology and Paying a Price (New York Times, June 2010)

Recovering from Information Overload (McKinsey Quarterly, January 2011)

And a bonus article not included in the official six because you have to purchase it from HBR:

Death by Information Overload (Paul Hemp, Harvard Business Review, Sept. 2009)

That should get you grounded in the basics. I’ll suggest more recommended reading in the near future.

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IORG: Ready to rock

It’s been four years since 30 or so people came together at the headquarters of Microsoft Research to talk about a worldwide problem — information overload.

The group included technologists, academicians, researchers, consultants, solution providers and other deep thinkers from Intel, Microsoft, Google, IBM, Morgan Stanley, Stanford University, UC Irvine, and other high-profile organizations. Organizations that both cause information overload and need to solve it.

From those discussions emerged the Information Overload Research Group. The following year (2008), IORG became a non-profit corporation, held a conference in New York, and got serious ink in places like TIME, the Wall Street Journal, and Harvard Business Review.

Now it’s 2011. Society may have gotten a little smarter about information overload, but the deluge continues unabated. The good news is that IORG is poised to become a more effective voice in the struggle against overload. The organization’s agenda for 2011:

• A new website (up and running at
• A repository of significant research on information overload (coming soon)
• An information overload index (is it getting worse or better?)
• A quarterly teleconference with experts
• Periodic “research briefs” with the best current research
• A live conference late this year (still tentative)
• Taking part in Information Overload Awareness Day

What else can/should we do? Your ideas are more than welcome. In fact, in the words of IORG President Nathan Zeldes, “if you share our passion for eliminating info Overload, I urge you to join the group and influence its activity!”

The dues are low. The opportunity to make a difference is high. It’s time to help the world get a handle on this.

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