Monthly Archives: March 2011

The overwhelm point

Monday morning and here they come. Email after email. IM after IM. SharePoint documents. Voice mails. By noon, there’s already more than you can read by 5 (or 8)—even without counting the four hours of meetings that will keep you away from your desk. (And certainly not counting all the social media from the outside world.)

But of course, some of the most important communications of the day will arrive after you’ve already reached the point where you couldn’t hope to process them all.

And this leads to a theorem: There’s a point at which each additional input subtracts from the value of all the inputs awaiting processing. In math, we called this the relative maximum. In the office, we call it too much to get through. (Research in the UK last year by showed that 70 percent of workers receive irrelevant internal email, and nearly 40 percent operate on information overload.)

So let’s give it a name—the overwhelm point. We know what happens there: Once you arrive, every new electronic communication you have to handle decreases the value of everything else awaiting your attention. Why? Because you either deal with the items at breakneck speed, or you start jettisoning them to get them out of your queue. (Perhaps, as I’ve been known to do, you drag a bunch of email messages into a folder called “Email bankruptcy.”)

Once you get beyond the overwhelm point, it affects your life in a variety of ways. Those include whether you’re able to do quality work, your overall work/life balance, your reputation for being responsive, and how generally stressed you feel.

Where, exactly, is the overwhelm point? There’s no single answer to that. I’m certain that it varies by person, and by the type and complexity of input he or she is receiving. A text message, for instance, doesn’t count the same as an email with a heavy-duty spreadsheet attached. The OP may vary by gender, age, geography, education level, and a dozen other factors.

If you have some thoughts about how to identify the overwhelm point—or know of research in this area—I’d love to hear from you.

By the way, there’s a corollary: If an organization won’t prioritize the information for its people to consume, they’ll do it themselves. And they seldom will make the same choices the organization would have (or even the choices they themselves would have made if they hadn’t been doing the sort in real time). It’s another reason that organizations of all types and sizes need to get serious about the overwhelm point.


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Filed under Attention mangement, Communications, Email management, Impacts on society, Personal productivity

More and more about more and more

Is it me, or does it seem like everyone’s talking about the amount of information in the world? It’s an important topic for several reasons: We need to wade through it when we search, keeping on top of even a fraction is becoming progressively more impossible, and—as Shelley Podolny pointed out the other day in the New York Times—it occupies server farms that are both expensive and environmentally unfriendly. But is all the talk about the size of the beast taking focus off what we need to do to tame it?

Should you want to ponder the generation of information going back to antiquity, here are some items to add to your reading stack:

‘Too Much to Know’ (review of Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know by Serena Golden, Inside Higher Ed, March 17, 2011)

Information Overload’s 2,300-Year-Old History (Ann Blair, Harvard Business Review, March 14, 2011)

Drumbeat to E-Mail: The Medium and the Message (review of James Gleick’s The Information by Janet Maslin, New York Times, March 6, 2011)

The Information: How the Internet gets inside us (Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, February 14, 2011)

Exabytes: Documenting the ‘digital age’ and huge growth in computing capacity (Brian Vastag, Washington Post, February 10, 2011)

Rise of the digital information age (graphic, Washington Post, February 10, 2011)

Read more on the “exabytes” study (from USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism) here.

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Email: The missing ingredient

Google keeps rolling out features intended to make email better and easier to use. Last summer, it was “Priority Inbox,” which pushes your most important (non-spam) emails to the top of your Gmail inbox. (Read the CNN story.)

Now it’s “Smart Labels,” which sorts your email into groups in an effort to make it easier to deal with all those e-newsletters you subscribe to, advertising you’d actually like to read, and other non-urgent, non-personal emails. (Read the CNN story.)

Unfortunately, the refinements are limited to Gmail (not Google’s fault, and other companies do offer similar functionality via add-ons). And they haven’t yet found a way to enable the sender to easily include a key bit of missing information—what kind of email is this?

People have tried various workarounds to signal the kind of email they’re sending. The most popular is including a word like “ACTION” in the subject line.

When I was a partner at Outsource Marketing in Bellevue, Washington, we took that idea a step further. We created a series of four-letter tags to use at the beginning of subject lines:

URGT: Urgent – respond or act ASAP

ACTN: Action required

UN2K: You need to know

FYIN: Read at your convenience

MTNG: Pre- or post-meeting communication

BUSN: Strategic business information

EMPY: Information for employees – benefits, job postings, HR

TRNG: Training-related communications

The four-letter tags offered unique letter combinations that were unlikely to appear in the text of any emails—so it was easy to search and sort on the tags. The problem, of course, was that they were only good inside the company. We couldn’t use them on emails that went to clients, nor did clients send any tagged email to us.

What really needs to happen is that these categories (or ones like them) become built into the email itself—perhaps in a drop-down menu similar to the one used to indicate urgency. If Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and other companies that control the email world would get on board, users could set up their own strategies to deal with the various types of emails they receive.

For corporate employees, who typically receive 550+ email messages each week (according to the Radicati Group), it would make a huge difference in being able to navigate the nonstop river of email.

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Filed under Email management, Personal productivity

Might there finally be TMI?

New York Times op-ed contributor Shelley Podolny weighed in today with a column [“The Digital Pileup“] on the high cost of our digital lives. Not the “we’re all becoming shallow thinkers” costs, but ones that can be measured in dollars and cents. She says 70 percent of the data in server farms is stuff that comes from . . . us.

And it’s growing like the title character in a certain 1958 Steve McQueen film.

“The current volume estimate of all electronic information is roughly 1.2 zettabytes, the amount of data that would be generated by everyone in the world posting messages on Twitter continuously for a century,” Podolny says. “That includes everything from e-mail to YouTube. More stunning: 75 percent of the information is duplicative. By 2020, experts estimate that the volume will be 44 times greater than it was in 2009. There finally may be, in fact, T.M.I.”

Just to be clear, 1.2 zettabytes is just the amount we were expected to generate just in 2010, according to research from IDC. That fact appears in “All Too Much“—part of a comprehensive report on information that The Economist published in February 2010.

The University of California at San Diego also put out a report last year called “How Much Information?” Among its findings:

In 2008, Americans consumed information for about 1.3 trillion hours, an average of almost 12 hours per day. Consumption totaled 3.6 zettabytes and 10,845 trillion words, corresponding to 100,500 words and 34 gigabytes for an average person on an average day. A zettabyte is 10 to the 21st power bytes, a million million gigabytes. These estimates are from an analysis of more than 20 different sources of information, from very old (newspapers and books) to very new (portable computer games, satellite radio, and Internet video).

The 36-page PDF breaks down the numbers in great detail. None of the information studied, by the way, was consumed at work.

Cisco says much more is coming via the mobile channel [read the story on Ars Technica]. The company’s latest Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast says world mobile data grew by a factor of 2.6 in 2010, and will increase by a factor of 26 by 2015. That’s the year when there will be 788 million mobile-only Internet users. Some other predictions for 2015:

  • Two-thirds of the world’s mobile data traffic will be video by 2015.
  • Mobile network connection speeds will increase ten times by that year.
  • Mobile-connected tablets will produce the same amount of traffic in 2015 as the entire global mobile network in 2010.

We’re going to do our part to curtail The Blob and sign off now.

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No more email in 3 years? Good luck with that

Atos Origin, a 49,000-person IT services firm based outside Paris, is boldly going where no company—IT or otherwise—has gone before. CEO Thierry Breton plans to eliminate internal email by this time in 2014.

According to Computerworld UK, Breton aims to become a “zero email company” to conquer the information pollution that bogs down management and costs the company dearly:

Breton said information pollution, or data overload, needed to be addressed by companies. “We are producing data on a massive scale that is fast polluting our working environments and also encroaching into our personal lives.”

He added: “We are taking action now to reverse this trend, just as organisations took measures to reduce environmental pollution after the industrial revolution.”

Breton said the volume of emails Atos sent and received was “unsustainable for business”. He said managers currently spent between five and 20 hours a week reading and writing emails. They were already using social media networking more than search, and spent 25 percent of their time searching for information.

More from Breton: “Email is on the way out as the best way to run a company and do business.”

What will replace it at Atos Origin? The latest in social media and collaboration tools such as Office Communicator (and presumably others to be identified or created). Nathan Zeldes, president of the Information Overload Research Group, is convinced that Atos Origin will pull this off. He contends in his latest newsletter that Breton’s clout as CEO will provide the impetus, and the company’s staff will find ways to make it happen. [Nathan’s newsletter differs from his blog and is well worth reading. You can subscribe to it here.]

I’m not so sure. Atos Origin will still need email to connect with the “outside world” (at least until everyone else gets on the zero email bus). In addition, email as we know it is evolving rapidly—becoming more social and integrated with other technologies. It will almost certainly become more efficient and less of a productivity drain within three years—at least at companies willing to make the change.

One of the companies moving us in that direction is Blue Sky Factory. CEO Greg Cangialosi says “the inbox is being reinvented and is becoming the platform.” He also says email is not going to go away: “The email address is still the way we identify and connect . . . Other communities will never replace the platform role that our inbox serves.” [Read more at Baltimore’s CityBizList.]


Filed under Cultural change, Email management, Personal productivity

More recommended reading

Fast Company expert blogger David Lavenda is out with a list of eight must-reads about digital distraction and information overload. The top four:

Newsweek, Feb 27, 2011 – “I Can’t Think!” – The Twitterization of our culture has revolutionized our lives, but with an unintended consequence—our overloaded brains freeze when we have to make decisions.

Time Magazine, Feb. 11, 2011 – “Wired for Distraction?” – Like it or not, social media are reprogramming our children’s brains. What’s a good parent to do?

USA Today – Feb 2, 2011 – “Social Media Users Grapple with Information Overload”

The New York Times – a 7-part series called “Your Brain on Computers” looks at how a deluge of data can affect the way people think and behave.

The other four are books—Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers [the best book I’ve read since Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody], The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, The Tyranny of Email by John Freeman, and The Information: A History, A Flood, A Theory by James Gleick. Lavenda also includes some factoids about overload, including this: 65 percent of North Americans spend more time with their computer than with their spouse.

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Filed under Impacts on society, Personal productivity, Research