Category Archives: Information Overload Research Group

The case for email hashtags

Better subject lines make for better emails. We take that as a given (even if we practice it too little).

Now we can make email subject lines even more useful—by using hashtags.

It’s been just over a year since I first proposed the idea of email hashtags. Since then, the idea has been enthusiastically embraced at a conference sponsored by the Information Overload Research Group (see the video of my presentation). It’s gaining traction as a way to help others—and ourselves—manage incoming email messages. (See this short video from technology consultant Chris Pirillo.)

According to the New York Times, even the “inventor” of Twitter hashtags—Chris Messina—is using them in email:

. . .  when Chris Messina, a developer advocate at Google, wanted to introduce two friends over e-mail, he wrote #Introduction in the subject line. No need, he explained, for a long preamble when a quick, to-the-point hashtag would do.

Then again, Mr. Messina is no ordinary Twitter user. The self-described “hash godfather,” he officially invented the Twitter hashtag in August 2007, when he sent out a Twitter message suggesting that the pound symbol be used for organizing groups on Twitter. (For example, if attendees at the South by Southwest music and technology conference all add #sxsw to their messages, they can more easily search and sort themselves on Twitter.) Though the idea took awhile to catch on, it quickly snowballed—on Twitter and offline.

Now there’s a website for email hashtags (emailhashtags.org). If the idea sounds intriguing, pay it a visit. It takes less than two minutes to read. And it could change the way you think about email.

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From soldiers to knowledge workers: Overloaded 2012 covers spectrum of challenges

Attendees at Overloaded 2012 in San FranciscoThe recent daylong get-together of information overload experts and solution-seekers in San Francisco yielded a rich harvest of insights. (The Feb. 25 conference was sponsored by the Information Overload Research Group. For a summary of the morning keynote by Dr. David Levy, see previous post.)

The military on overload—Col. Pete Marksteiner, an Air Force public affairs officer, is trying to focus more of the military’s attention on information overload. Military doctrine says the ability of the U.S. to achieve its objectives depends on its effectiveness in employing “the instruments of national power”—diplomatic, informational, military, and economic. Marksteiner said battles can be lost due to distractions, interruptions, and urgency over effectiveness. “If these things adversely influence the way people receive, process, interpret and use data, they’re a threat to national security,” he said. The 9/11 Commission concluded the U.S. has poor systems for processing information. Marksteiner is recommending to the Air Force Science Advisory Board that the military look at the problem carefully and leverage expertise available to help solve it.

Five seconds to decide—Christina Randle, CEO of The Effective Edge, said professionals must handle 225 inputs per day (deciding what to do with them in 5 seconds or less). Her company provides tools and techniques that have reduced stress, improved work/life balance, decreased interruptions, and improved deadline performance. However, she said, challenges are looming: “We’ve mastered the tools for individual effectiveness. Now we have to work in teams. We’re moving from email to collaboration. And IT is not focused on learning.”

The new inbox—Pierre Khawan, CEO of People on the Go, describes email, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn as “the new inbox.” His research shows that only 20 percent of people have a workable strategy for handling all the incoming messages. Khawan has developed a framework in which people switch from the “accomplishment zone” (where individual tasks get done) to the “collaboration zone” (for email, networking, etc.). He’s posted a variety of free and low-cost information at People on the Go.

Jonathan Spira, CEO of BasexAwareness begets reduction—Jonathan Spira, CEO of Basex and author of Overload!, said one underlying problem is that “we don’t have a management science for the knowledge era. We’re using the approaches from the industrial age. Gatherings like this will help forge the management science.” Spira said the amount of time knowledge workers can spend on thought and reflection—the highest value they can add—is now down to 5% of their day. What’s driving information overload is “an exaggerated sense of what’s urgent and important.”

Bad habits continue to prevail: 62 percent of knowledge workers at one energy company open emails within 10 minutes, and 32 percent expected a response within an hour. “Reasonable service level expectations would help.” A key new finding: “Simply telling people there’s a problem reduced information overload by 10 percent. You’re helping to reduce it by writing about it.”

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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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Information Overload 101 for 2012

It’s a lot easier to experience information overload than it is to study up on it. For one thing, so much has been written in the past few years that it’s almost become its own form of overload.

So if you’re looking to understand the state of the challenge—what we know, what’s being done, what sorts of solutions are working—I’d like to suggest a few places to begin.

The Information Overload Research Group got its start on the campus of Microsoft Research in 2007, and will produce its second conference on February 25 in San Francisco (to which you’re invited). The organization’s web site: iorgforum.org

Jonathan Spira (a fellow director of IORG) is the author of Overload! How Too Much Information is Hazardous to Your Organization, one of the best overviews of the scope and cost of information overload—approaching $1 trillion a year in the U.S. (Read my earlier summary.) Spira also runs a web site as a companion to the book (overloadstories.com) and contributes to the Basex blog.

When he’s not curating TED conferences, Chris Anderson works to change our thinking about email. He’s blogged on the topic and written an “Email Charter” intended as a pledge to reform bad habits. (Read more in Fast Company.)

About a year ago, Derek Dean and Caroline Webb wrote a piece for the McKinsey Quarterly called “Recovering from Information Overload.” In it, they debunk multitasking as damaging to productivity and creativity—and even relationships and health. They outline a coping strategy that involves focusing, filtering and forgetting. And they say that resetting the culture to healthier norms is a critical new responsibility for 21st-century executives.

In a piece called “Are we on information overload?,” Salon interviews David Weinberger, senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, and author of a new book called Too Big to Know. Weinberger talks about “networked facts,” the evolution of filters, and his optimistic view of the future: “In the sciences and humanities, it’s hard to find somebody who claims the Internet is making him or her stupid, even among those who claim the Internet is making us stupid. And I believe this is the greatest time in human history.”

Clay Johnson is co-founder of Blue State Digital (the firm that managed Barack Obama’s online candidacy). He’s out with a new book called The Information Diet—his prescription for consciously controlling our information intake. An interview with Johnson (“Don’t blame the information for your bad habits”) was published this month in O’Reilly Radar: “Information overload is the wrong term because it blames the information. . . . We never say someone suffering from obesity is suffering from food overload. . . . Information overload’s message is, ‘put these tools on your computer, and you’ll better manage the information.’ This kind of practice would be like trying to go on a food diet by buying a different kind of refrigerator, or trying to become a professional athlete by relying solely on the purchase of running shoes. The problem is, we don’t need to manage the information. We need to manage our consumption of it.” (Watch the video. Johnson was also interviewed on NPR.)

Seattle health and science writer Sondra Kornblatt (Brain Fitness for Women), says women especially are under “insane stress”—from both information overload and expectation overload (which includes consuming all that information). In an essay in the Huffington Post, Kornblatt says the antidotes include drinking a glass of water when you first wake up, moving more, and—you may like this—eating chocolate.

But wait—there’s more. Actually, you’ll have to wait. That’s enough to consume at one sitting. Next week, I’ll post another half dozen articles that will help further your understanding of information overload.


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Overload! New book spells out the hazards of infoglut

We’ve learned from Nicholas Carr how the Internet is driving our thinking into “The Shallows.” Clay Shirky shared the blessings of our “Cognitive Surplus”—the resources that are voluntarily poured into making the world a better place through technology. James Gleick’s “The Information” chronicled how we’ve dealt with information through the ages.

Now Jonathan Spira (Wikipedia| IORG bio) comes forth with a book that goes easy on the social commentary and builds a compelling case with original research and well-chosen anecdotes about what information overload is doing to knowledge workers in the U.S. It’s called Overload! How Too Much Information is Hazardous to your Organization.

Spira, CEO and chief analyst at the New York research firm Basex, gets our attention with a boatload of factoids:

  • There are 78.6 million knowledge workers in the United States alone.
  • Information Overload cost the U.S. economy almost $1 trillion in 2010.
  • A minimum of 28 billion hours is lost each year to Information Overload in the United States.
  • Reading and processing just 100 e-mail messages can occupy over half of a knowledge worker’s day.
  • It takes five minutes to get back on track after a 30-second interruption.
  • For every 100 people who are unnecessarily copied on an e-mail, eight hours are lost.
  • 58 percent of government workers spend half the workday filing, deleting, or sorting information, at a cost of almost $31 billion dollars.
  • 66 percent of knowledge workers feel they don’t have enough time to get all of their work done.
  • 94 percent of those surveyed at some point have felt overwhelmed by information to the point of incapacitation.
  • One major Fortune 500 company estimates that Information Overload impacts its bottom line to the tune of $1 billion per year.
  • Information Overload has caused people to lose their ability to manage thoughts and ideas, contemplate, and even reason and think.

Spira also presents 10 tips to help lower information overload, distilled from his 25 years as a technology thought leader:

E-mail

  • I will not e-mail someone and then two seconds later follow up with an IM or phone call.
  • I will refrain from combining multiple themes and requests in a single e-mail.
  • I will make sure that the subject of my e-mail clearly reflects both the topic and urgency of the missive.
  • I will read my own e-mail before sending to make sure it is comprehensible to others.
  • I will not overburden colleagues with unnecessary e-mail, especialliy one-word replies such as “Thanks!” or “Great!” and will use “reply to all” only when absolutely necessary.

Instant messaging and presence awareness

  • I will not get impatient when there’s no immediate response to my message.
  • I will keep my presence awareness state up-to-date and visible to others so they know whether I’m busy or away.

All forms of communication

  • I will recognize that the intended recipient of my communications is not a mind reader, and therefore I will supply the necessary details in my messages so nothing is left to the imagination.
  • I will recognize that typed words can be misleading in terms of both tone and intent, and I will strive for clarity and simplicity in my messages. (The use of an occasional, well-placed emoticon can do wonders here.)
  • Finally, because i understand the complexity and severity of the problem of Information overload, I will do whatever I can to facilitate the transfer and sharing of knowledge.

Spira devotes a chapter to “The Tech Industry and Information Overload,” and presents a behind-the-scenes look at the founding of the Information Overload Research Group (iorgforum.org). He offers probably the only accurate story out there of how IORG came to be. Despite the PR props that several large companies have received for “banding together” to solve the IO problem, the only meaningful support has come from Intel and Microsoft Research (for sponsoring the two-day conference at which IORG was born) and Xerox (for a grant that funded the organization’s first couple of years).

Full disclosure: Jonathan and I both serve on IORG’s board of directors.

Read the news release
Order from Amazon
Basex Blog
Overload Stories (an ongoing continuation of the book)


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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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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 the99percent.com

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

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