Category Archives: Communications

Overloaded 2012: New energy around solving the overload problem

Overloaded  audience 2Would you give up a Saturday to help reduce information overload? On February 25, nearly 30 people—from academia, industry, consulting and the military—did just that.

They gathered at the PariSoma Innovation Loft in San Francisco for a day of presentations, discussions and brainstorming organized by the Information Overload Research Group. (I’m a founding director.)

Dr. David Levy, professor at the University of Washington’s Information School, said information overload represents “a constellation of current cultural concerns” that include busyness, fragmentation of attention (as in multitasking) and acceleration (where results are expected sooner).

He compared the overload challenge to the environmental movement, which “started with the awareness that something is out of balance with our relationship to the natural world.” He said many aspects of environmentalism—including research, education, policy setting, technology development and changes in social practices—also apply to information overload.

Contemplative multitasking—Dr. Levy and two associates conducted an experiment with 50 HR people in Seattle and San Francisco. They divided them into three groups (a control group, a group that received training in meditation, and a group that was taught body relaxation). Before and after the training, they had “lifelike multitasking experiences”—trying to write a memo while experiencing a multitude of interruptions. The meditators reported being less stressed after the training, and they also spent more “connected time” on single tasks. “They actually strengthened their ability not to pay attention to something and to stay with something,” said Levy. “It shows the mind can be trained to ignore input and be less taken away by distractions.”

Overloaded  David LevyUndergraduate overload—“We’ve been assuming the ‘born digital’ generation has it handled,” said Levy (at right in photo), but research is finding that’s not so. Levy described an experiment at Georgetown University and the University of Washington in which students abstained from a technological practice for up to three days (i.e., turn off your smart phone, stay off Facebook, etc.). Typical comments: “I felt like I was more engaged in the world,” “You can’t compare texting to being with someone,” and “We grew up in a culture that was very multitasking-oriented—where time out is a punishment. Students should learn when they’re young how to calm down and be focused.”

“I think they’re actually looking for help,” Levy said. “It’s a real opportunity for cross-generational dialogue—and it isn’t happening. There are real opportunities for the older and younger generation to learn from each other.”

Mindful awareness—In classrooms and workshops, Levy is attempting to help people be more deliberately conscious of their information practices. They discover, for instance, that the impulse to check email is often tied to boredom or anxiety—then construct personal guidelines that they share with the group.
“The challenge we face is not just unplugging in order to recover our sense of balance and well being, but it’s understanding how we can be online and be balanced,” Levy said. “This requires understanding of self as well as technology design.”

Coming next:  More insights from the Overloaded 2012 conference.


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Filed under Communications, Impacts on society, Information Overload Research Group, Research

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

The information elephant

If you’re here, I’m pretty sure it’s because you’re feeling the effects of information overload.  We’re going to embark on a journey to find and share some answers.

What makes me an expert on information overload?  I’m not a technologist, although I use lots of technology every day.  I’m not a researcher, although I embrace the value of data.  I’m a communicator.  I’ve spent time as a journalist, a political press secretary, an employee communications manager, a partner in a marketing firm, and a communications consultant.  About five years ago, I began to see that information overload was interfering with the communicating I was trying to do inside organizations.

Two things smacked me in the head and made me realize it was a lot bigger than that.  One occurred when I was waiting for an appointment at a PR firm.  I spotted a memo from the CFO on the bulletin board.  He said that if everyone in the firm spent an hour less per day processing email, they’d free up $1 million a year.  That was certainly serious coin.

A short time later, I was flying home next to a young woman who worked as a recruiter for a large software company.  She was about to have a meltdown.  She spent most of the flight trying to make her way through scores of emails she had downloaded shortly before takeoff . . . practically in tears . . . knowing that she’d have another huge batch awaiting her upon landing.  I’ve often wondered if she followed through on her inclination to seek another career.

It had become apparent to me that information overload was much more than an inconvenience to communicators.  It would require an all-out assault by Communications, HR and IT organizations to rid work environments of this scourge.

Early in 2007, I was involved in a two-day discussion at Microsoft Research involving about 30 researchers, technologists and deep thinkers from Microsoft, Intel, IBM, Google, Morgan Stanley, Stanford University, UC Irvine, and other organizations large and small.  I was the only communications guy in the room.  I signed on to help make something happen, and a year later we incorporated the Information Overload Research Group.  In July 2008, IORG held its first conference in New York and is now focusing on online events.  You can read my hopes for the group here.

I’ve also written two articles about IO:

The Staggering Cost of Information Overload” for the International Association of Business Communicators’ Communication World Online

Email Overload:  The Elephant in the Room” for the Journal of Employee Communications Management, republished by Communitelligence

While IORG is busy creating a comprehensive repository of research on information overload, I want to jump-start the spread of solutions.  Here are my goals for this blog:

1.  If you set out to solve the information overload problem in your organization, where do you begin?  TMI is intended to share what works.  Some of what works involves technology.  Some includes better strategies for managing incoming information.  And some centers on changing the behavior of information-sharers to more thoughtfully consider the “tragedy of the commons.”

2.  This blog is designed to serve as a bridge between the communications profession and those who are actively working to solve the problem.  Communicators are all affected by information overload—but there’s not nearly enough discussion about it within the profession.  Not all IO is related to communications . . . but communicators have a major role to play in strategizing (and then communicating about) the solution.

3.  TMI will offer ideas for individuals trying to simply keep up.  How do you cope with the riding tide of information?  What should you expect of yourself?  When is it OK to turn off and tune out?

4.  Finally, if we do our job, we’ll also broaden the conversation.  Most discussions about information overload have focused on business productivity.  Fair enough.  My friends at Basex say it costs the U.S. economy $900 billion a year (article at Huffington Post).  That merits the attention of everyone.  But what other impacts—and high costs—come with information overload?  What are its effects on government, academia, medicine, law, science, religion, marketing, journalism, media . . . and the resulting social costs?  What are the unintended consequences of potential solutions?

So we’re off and running.  Will adding to information overload help solve it?  We’ll see . . . .

Posted by Bill Boyd

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Filed under Attention mangement, Communications, Cultural change, Email management, Financial impacts