According to a recent survey, employees and employers are worried about the impacts of information overload on productivity, morale, and work quality. We’ve modified our behaviors to embrace new technologies and now many of us have trouble controlling our desire to know what’s happening continuously on issues related to work, family and friends, politics, entertainment and business. And even though I don’t like to admit it, I too have to put on an "out of office" message, and sometimes even really do work outside the office, in order to get real work done. The truth be known, my most productive time is on a cross-country flight. Wow, four hours of uninterrupted time! Don’t give me WiFi and please don’t let passengers start using cell phones on planes. This is the best uninterrupted time you can hope for.
One report produced by the Burton Group states that our expectations for responsiveness have increased greatly and individuals now feel an instinctive need to respond immediately, or they are consumed with guilt. They refer to the "CrackBerry effect," and although we might use the term jokingly, both about ourselves and our friends, it’s beginning to look more and more like the truth.
Like many, I’m questioning if technology and our expectations for staying connected have gone too far? Jack Santos, the author of the Burton Group report, wrote that "the cumulative responses from the CIO community to all of this info-insanity is: ‘Stop the world! I need to get off!’"
Looking at our behaviors and the problems we encounter when we try to disconnect from technology for any period of time (say a vacation week) I think it’s reasonable to ask "are our skill sets for emotionally and psychologically managing the volumes of available information in step with the pace of technological advancements?" Jonathan Spira, a researcher who studies worker productivity, has written a book on the topic of information overload, quite perfectly entitled "Overload: How Too Much Information is Hazardous to Your Organization." According to his research, a worker reading and responding to 100 emails a day can easily occupy one half of the work day! Think about that – how many emails do you respond to in a day? Spira’s research goes further to reveal, "for every 100 people who are unnecessarily copied on an email, eight hours of productivity are lost." So what’s the answer? How do we tame the information overload beast eating up precious hours of productive time for each worker?
Suggestions from The Experts
Spira and others suggest a few "simple" things we can do to change our productivity metrics:
- Stop sending emails that only say "thanks." I know that on some occasions it is important to acknowledge that "I got it," but make these the exception rather than the rule.
- Schedule e-mail time two to three times a day for 10 minutes at a time.
- Discontinue smart phone use, or at least check it only on a predefined schedule rather than at every vibration.
- Before you hit the "reply all" button – does everyone need to know what you’re about to say? Good question!
- Turn off email and text alerts (sound and vibration) so you’re not tempted to be distracted from what you are focused on.
- Learn to block those advertisements that you don’t need to be bothered with in order to cut down on interruptions.
- Think twice - or maybe three times - before forwarding that chain notice or joke – what a waste of time.
- Set aside immersion time. –Bill Gates is probably the best at this with his "Think Week" retreat. This time is for getting away from technology and focusing on consuming ideas, books, articles, conversations that will stimulate new ideas without interruptions and distractions.
A survey conducted by LexisNexis suggests that businesses aren’t doing enough to help workers manage the information they are exposed to. Workers from each market said they would welcome up-to-date technology and customized tools for managing information, as well as training on best practices and self-discipline. Until better tools are available, consider utilizing available support and time management skills to manage the stress and impact of this phenomenon:
- Turn on your Out of Office Message so you won’t feel so guilty about not responding as soon as a message hits your mailbox.
- Use an RSS Reader to organize the most important information you need to access.
- Stay focused on connecting with the most important information you need to know and don’t worry about the rest.
- Form "support groups" at work to discuss the problem and to share ideas for disconnection.
- Practice shutting down cell phones, email, etc. about two hours prior to bedtime in order to give your brain a chance to disengage.
- Establish an electronic system for filing your emails and attachments to shorten retrieval time.
Information overload is not a new problem. According to an article in Harvard Business Review by Ann Blair, in 1255 the Dominican Vincent of Beauvais articulated the key ingredients of the feelings of overload which are still with us today: "the multitude of books, the shortness of time and the slipperiness of memory." Sound familiar? No one doubts the fact that the age of information and knowledge is here. What we need to do is build the skills and disciplines to properly survive it.
When attending a time management workshop you probably learned about time wasters – the people who stop by your office and ask, "do you have a few minutes?" and 30 minutes later you’re still trying to get them out of your cubicle. The colleague that calls and before you can say hello, says "I’ll only keep you for five minutes," but before you know it, an hour has passed. Or, the meeting you’ve been requested to attend that has nothing to do with the work you are currently responsible for. And the list goes on. Well it’s time to add the time wasters of email, Twitter, Facebook, etc. to that group. These are all good tools when properly utilized to add value to our lives, but when they begin to dictate daily priorities, they can turn into the biggest time wasters.
Research continues to demonstrate that our brains are not structured for multi-tasking in a time efficient manner, and in fact, we should try to avoid multi-tasking at all costs. As Mr. Spira’s research concludes, "when it comes to cognitive tasks, our brains aren’t really capable of competently doing more than one thing at a time." The research seems to be clear, "workers distracted by email and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in a marijuana smoker"! (2005 University of London Study). If we can hardly walk and chew gum at the same time, what’s to be done about all these pulls for our attention and engagement with information?
Surprisingly, there appears to be movement away from supporting distractors like email and the like. An August article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that "Companies like PriceWaterhouseCoopers have put out requests urging employees to not email over the weekend, so as to not create a false urgency for action. And the French service company Atos Origin plans to go email free in the next three years to cut down on what it calls ‘information pollution.’ There’s even an effort underway to ‘conquer information overload’ and restore sanity to working professionals. The site InfoVegan is dedicated to information obesity, diets and civic accountability." What’s your organization doing about this problem?
Whether it’s email, social media, YouTube or whatever, informative availability has invaded our homes and work zones. Establishing a work culture that honors "nontechnical" time and values a healthy expectation for a balanced and realistic number of "connected" hours is a good step in the right direction. Helping our employees develop reasonable and practical skills for managing the 24/7/365-paced global environment should be on the priority list of every leader. I would suggest denying access to the technologies is not the answer. In addition to shifting the culture, organizations should begin to offer workshops about the impact of information overload to brain functionality and productivity along with training focused on building new skills to better manage the information produced by the expanding access to technology channels.
What’s your experience with information overload? What’s working for you and your employees, and where are you struggling? Please share your comments below.