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07.20.11

Information Overload and What You Can Do About It

Knowledge workers think for a living to varying extents, depending on the job and situation, but there is little time for thought and reflection in the course of a typical day. Instead, information—often in the form of e-mail messages, reports, news, Web sites, RSS feeds, blogs, wikis, instant messages, text messages, Twitter, and video conferencing walls—bombards and dulls our senses.
Consider this: A 30-second interruption can result in as much as 5 minutes of recovery time. In total, interruptions plus recovery time consume as much as 28% of the knowledge worker’s day.

Overload
The volume of information we have today “throttles productivity, reduces our capability to absorb and learn, puts our physical and mental health at risk, and interferes with personal and business relationships.” Jonathan Spira, CEO of Basex, a research firm focusing on issues companies face in the knowledge economy, explains in Overload! why we are in the state we are in and what steps we can begin to take to better manage it.

Even as dry as information tends to be, this is an absorbing book. Spira claims that the changes in how we use and view information that will happen over the next 50 years will not only reshape the globe but turn it inside out. Today, information overload costs the U.S. economy a minimum of $900 billion per year in lowered employee productivity and reduced innovation.

To manage successfully in the knowledge economy, we must recognize key differences in how knowledge workers work. Their tasks can be categorized into six overarching tasks: searching, creating content (sometimes re-creating), thought and reflection, sharing knowledge, and networking. Interestingly, a 2010 Basex study found that of these tasks, knowledge workers only spend only 5% of the day engaged in thought and reflection. The one task that is essential for all the rest we spend so little time performing. We must allow [require] workers more time for thought and reflection if they are to be more productive, efficient, and effective.

Too much information without reflection can stall our productivity. It affects our ability to manage thoughts and ideas, contemplate and even to reason and think. We develop a state of what has been termed, continuous partial attention; to give only partial attention continuously. Science writer Steven Johnson described it this way:
It usually involves skimming the surface of the incoming data, picking out the relevant details, and moving on to the next stream. You’re paying attention, but only partially. That lets you cast a wider net, but it also runs the risk of keeping you from really studying the fish.
Researcher Linda Stone adds this:
It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment….It is an always on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always on high alert when we pay continuous partial attention.

Although there are tens of thousands of things we could do says Spiria, he offers ten tips that, when observed, will help lower information overload for everyone:
  • Don’t email someone, and then two seconds later follow up with an Instant Message or phone call.
  • Don’t combine multiple themes or requests in a single email.
  • Make sure the subject of your email clearly reflects both the topic and urgency of the missive.
  • Read your email before sending to make sure it is comprehensible to others.
  • Don’t overburden people with unnecessary e-mail, especially one-word replies such as “Thanks!” or “Great!” and only use “reply to all” only when absolutely necessary.
  • Don’t get impatient when there’s no immediate response to your message.
  • Keep your status up-to-date and visible to others so they know whether you’re busy or away.
  • Recognize that the intended recipient of your communications isn’t a mind reader, and therefore I will supply the necessary details in your messages so nothing is left to the imagination.
  • Recognize that typed words can be misleading in both tone and intent, so strive for simplicity and clarity in your communication.
  • Because you understand the complexity and severity of information overload, do everything you can to facilitate the transfer and sharing of knowledge.
Find more tips at the book's companion website: OverloadStories.com

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Related Interest:
  Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking in Your Organization

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 08:56 AM
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