Information Overload

Based on the Harvard Business Review, September 2009 article on “Death by Information Overload”

The article talks about the phenomenon of information overload which most of us would be familiar with. I have attempted to summarize points from the article for the benefit of readers of this blog.

In the knowledge economy, information is considered to be our most valuable commodity. And, these days it's available in infinite abundance delivered automatically to our electronic devices or easily accessible. Current research suggests that the surging volume of available information and its interruption of people's work can adversely affect not only personal well-being but also decision making, innovation and productivity. Today, information rushes at us in seemingly infinite formats – email, text messages, twitter tweets, facebook alerts, voice mail, instant messaging, rss feeds and so many other ways. People are drawn towards information that in the past did not exist or that we did not have access to earlier but now that it's available, we dare not ignore.

What does this deluge of information mean for individuals ?

The stress of not being able to process information as fast as it arrives – combined with the personal and social expectation that, say, you will answer every message – can deplete and demoralize you. Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist and expert on attention deficit disorders argues that the modern workplace induces what he calls “attention deficit trait” with characteristics similar to that of the genetically based disorder. Also, a study commissioned by Hewlett Packard reported that the IQ scores of knowledge workers distracted by email and phone calls fell from their normal level by an average of 10 points – twice the decline recorded for those smoking marijuana ! While a section of people feel overwhelmed with the information overload, there are some who seem to be stimulated by it and display what is termed as “information addiction”. An AOL survey of 4000 email users in the United States reported that 46% of the email users surveyed were “hooked” on e-mail. We must also be aware of the tendency of always-available information to blur the boundaries between work and home thereby affecting personal lives in unexpected ways.

What does this information overload mean for companies ?

An email notification or a message alert means more than just time spent reading and responding to the message. There's also time required to recover from the interruption and re-focus attention. A study by Microsoft researchers tracking the email habits of coworkers found that once their work was interrupted by an email notification, people took, on average, 24 minutes to return to the suspended task. Why is so much time wasted if all that needs to be done is to simply read a message? Studies further indicate that dealing with the message was only a portion of the time off task. People used the interruption as an opportunity to read other un-opened messages, engage in unrelated activities such as surfing the web, text-messaging, etc. Also, surprisingly over half the time was spent cycling through open applications on their computers to determine what they had been doing when interrupted and reestablishing their state of mind once they had finally arrived at the application they had initially abandoned when they were interrupted. Distractions caused by email and other types of information also have more subtle consequences. Research has identified reduced creative activity on days when work is fragmented by interruptions.

While it is not easy to quantify the costs of the consequences of information overload, one calculation by researchers put Intel's annual cost of reduced efficiency, in the form of time lost to handling unnecessary email and recovering from information interruptions, at nearly $1 billion. The researchers go on to say that organizations ignore that kind of number at their peril.

In the next post, we'll look at some ways to manage this information overload.