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 Salesforce.com 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

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