As a business writer and editor, I've always accepted the fact that managing information content and dealing with information overload are daily issues that come with the territory. There are always going to be multiple (and new) resources available, points of view to consider, ways to approach a topic. All the while dealing within time constraints of doing all of the above and maneuvering through the normal daily interruptions and distractions—some of them important, some of them not.
Then I decided to write this story on information overload and how it affects today's workers. Googling and Binging the term spit out more than 15 million results. And that was just the beginning of the overload avalanche to follow. All in all, the irony of the process hasn't been lost on me: In researching and writing this story about information overload, I increasingly suffered from the effects of it. This story has been restarted and reorganized at least a half-dozen times.
There's some comfort in knowing that I'm definitely not alone in feeling the pain of information overload. Almost no one is immune to it. It impacts organizations and people worldwide, companies small or large, low-tech or high-tech, governmental organizations, educational institutions, religious, military and nonprofit organizations.
In recognizing this growing problem, a group of researchers, practitioners and technologists joined together to form the Information Overload Research Group (IORG) in 2008. The consortium includes Xerox, Microsoft, Intel and IBM, along with other high-tech leaders and members from universities, the U.S. military, the scientific community and solution providers. Their mission? To build awareness of information overload, to discuss its far-reaching impact and to provide solutions.
For awareness starters, nothing quite gets our attention like dollar figures. According to Jonathan Spira, CEO and chief analyst at Basex, a knowledge economy research firm, and a founding IORG member, the latest research shows that information overload costs the U.S. economy a minimum of $900 billion per year in lowered employee productivity and reduced innovation.
While that's a hefty price tag, Spira reflected that it's a fairly conservative number that could be as high as $1 trillion. "It reflects the loss of 25 percent of the knowledge worker's day to the (information overload) problem. Workers spend up to 50 percent of their day managing information." No wonder, then, that Spira refers to this issue as our "National Attention Deficit."
Information Bombardment: The Norm, But Is It Normal?
Information overload is a multifaceted problem that stems from multiple factors. The depth and breadth of content has proliferated. Multiple, new technologies provide more access to more information and compete for our attention. We're available 24x7 regardless of where we are. We wear that availability and our multi-tasking skills almost like a badge of honor. In the end, we wonder if we will ever be able to catch up or keep up.
Just consider the proliferation of content that is more difficult to filter and manage in this new century. In 1900 the total amount of knowledge available to us doubled about every 500 years. In 1990 it doubled about every two years. And by 2020, some futurists predict that knowledge will double every 35 days.
Add to this the number of new, intrusive tech devices in the workplace that bombard people with information—from text messages, tweets and e-mail to blogs, social networking sites, cell phones, pagers and paper communications. According to author James Krohe Jr. in his Conference Board Review report on "The Attention Deficit," this bombardment may be the norm, but it's anything but normal.
Edward Hallowell, a Boston-based psychiatrist and author of the book CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! has written about human reactions to this abnormal environment. Hallowell, who specializes in the treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) has suggested that workplace behaviors like irritability and inability to organize are often normal responses to an abnormal environment. In 2005, he coined the term Attention Deficit Trait (ADT) to describe this sub-clinical condition whose symptoms, he found, mimic those of ADHD.
Hallowell also asserted that the cognitive impact of information overload causes people to work well below their full potential. "They produce less output, think superficially and generate fewer new ideas—despite working an increasing number of hours." There is also evidence showing an increase in error rates, including errors in management decision-making.
E-mail overload, a variety of workplace distractions and interruptions, and other factors all contribute to the problem of information overload. Nathan Zeldes, co-founder, president and chairman of IORG, studied this while working at Intel as a principal engineer. He co-authored a paper with David Sward and Signal Loucheim called, "Infomania: Why we can't afford to ignore it any longer," which provides additional insight into two primary culprits—e-mail and distractions—and what happens to workers as result.
For instance, the volume of e-mail itself represents a good-sized task load. It starts with the need to read and react to messages, dispose of them or deal with the uninvited work they've provided. This barrage taxes employees' resources and reduces time they can devote to their primary work. "It also places them in a frustrating, unending rat race," said Zeldes. "The problem isn't the abundance of accessible information. It's the queued streams of pushed information; that is, the accumulation of messages governed by the expectation that the worker process them all."
While e-mail is a legitimate and vital part of today's workplace, much of it simply isn't. Zeldes' Infomania report on Intel employees, for example, showed that workers spent an average of three hours per day processing e-mail. About 30 percent of those messages (1 million per day) were unnecessary.
Then there's the factor of workplace distractions and interruptions not just from e-mail, but instant messages, phone calls, text messages, co-workers—most of which get immediate attention. Researchers have found that on average, knowledge workers can expect three minutes of uninterrupted work on any task before being interrupted. The result is that people average 11 minutes on any one "working sphere" or project before switching to another project altogether.
This extreme fragmentation of work results in a severe cumulative time loss, with some estimates as high as 25 percent of the workday (Basex). An employee's ability to achieve results is affected by their ability to concentrate on one project for more than a few minutes. The impact of information overload results in other damage as well:
Productive time is lost. Work-interrupting distractions cause a direct loss of time due to "cognitive reorientation costs" or "switching costs" compared to uninterrupted work. This is the time required to change context from one task to another and back. Even if a distraction consumes little actual time, it can still impose a serious loss. An irrelevant pop-up lingering for a few seconds or a brief phone call can require minutes to recover lost concentration. The time to return to an interrupted task is 25 minutes.
Thomas Jackson's 2001 study on cognitive reorientation costs found that constant interruption increased the time required to do complex chores by as much as 20 percent to 40 percent.
Reduced mental capacity. Endless distractions and the stress of information overload combine to perceptibly degrade the mental acuity of knowledge workers. People are less capable of thinking, generating creative ideas and effectively solving problems. A research study commissioned by Hewlett-Packard reported that IQ scores of information workers tested while they are subjected to distraction and overload are reduced by 10 points.
Distractions can cause a loss of "situational awareness." In other words, an employee has to mentally go back to where they were before the interruption. This can also induce errors, rework, forgotten steps and lowered overall output.
Less creativity and innovation. Because of information overload, workers and managers are thinking less, inventing less, producing less, succeeding less. New, significant inventions remain un-invented. Better solutions to major problems are left undiscovered. For instance, the engineer who could have insight leading to the next major product innovation if he could find 30 minutes to think about it. The call-center supervisor who could double efficiency can't because she's nearly brain-dead from staying up late responding to e-mail.
Disappearance of quality "thinking time." The creative thinking process requires long stretches of uninterrupted time to study information, process it, mentally sort it and to then generate insight. Each part of the process takes time and mental concentration, which builds up slowly and can easily be lost.
In the past, such thinking time was core to the work paradigm. "Newton got hit by that apple because he was sitting under a tree. Sitting and contemplating the world (what we now call 'doing nothing') was an expected part of a scientist's routine," said Zeldes.
Today, we have very little time to think. "It is fair, yet sad, to say that many knowledge workers have almost no uninterrupted work time—time that is essential to enabling creativity, innovation or serious problem-solving," said Zeldes. This reduced ability to reflect on problems often and at length complements the reduction in mental capacity that Hallowell described. Together, they hobble knowledge workers' ability to generate creative ideas and innovative solutions that are at the core of their value to their employers.
Overload Breaks Down Vital Organizational Processes
A little-recognized outcome of information overload is how it breaks down the processes that power an organization: communications, meetings, manager-employee relationships, work planning and ultimately, employees' work-life balance:
Communication is compromised. While e-mail is a vital communication channel, its value has been compromised by overload as well the changes that have taken place in how it is used to communicate. Fifteen years ago, e-mail was a tool that pretty much guaranteed a next-day response. Today it's a game of chance. Will your urgent message be answered today or tomorrow? Next week? Ever?
According to Zeldes, computer-mediated communication researchers call this "online silence," the failure to respond to an e-mail in a timely fashion. "Lack of response breeds ambiguity, since it is unknown whether the message was willfully ignored, not yet opened, filtered away by some rule, left for later response, or simply lingers unnoticed under the avalanche. Ambiguity can be worse than delay."
The outcome? A broken chain as projects are put on hold awaiting decisions or information. Trust erodes between individuals or within the teams
Meetings aren't effective. People dealing with e-mail, text messages or cell phone calls in meetings are now the norm. And if they're not doing so, they are definitely thinking about it. The most important aspect of effective meetings is joining the creative energy and critical thinking of several brains into a powerful problem-solving engine. That energy becomes utterly lost. And the investment made in meetings is significantly reduced.
Manager-employee interaction suffers. A key role of senior managers is to engage employees through mentoring, guidance and support. Reality today is that getting half an hour with your boss one-on-one is next to impossible. If you do get the time, it might be lost while your manager takes or rejects cell-phone calls. Managers waste countless hours trying to cope with their own information overload and often won't respond to an employee's message for days.
The fact that a subordinate is unable to get a manager's coaching and advice when needed is an alarming sign of how extensively unsolicited distractions have derailed even the most basic management processes.
Task and work planning become interrupt-driven. Prior to e-mail, people planned their day based on their own objectives. If anyone wanted their time, they needed to negotiate with the employee or their manager, often being refused if workloads and priorities dictated it. By succumbing to information overload, entire worker populations have gone from plan-driven to interrupt-driven.
A major use of e-mail is to broker assignments. The sender requests something: fill a Web survey, attend a meeting, compile and share materials, write a report, view a file, take a class, etc. The shorter tasks—ones taking under 10 minutes—are often executed when the message is read. This type of diversion can accumulate rapidly given current traffic levels. Others get incorporated in the person's activity plan for coming days.
The bottom line is that employees devote a significant portion of work hours to executing work dictated by others, independent of their own priorities and without agreeing in advance to reprioritize.
It affects employee's productivity and quality of life. Trying to deal with information excess results in an inability to focus, to process information, to make decisions and prioritize tasks, according to Basex's Spira. It lowers comprehension and concentration levels. "The combination of these factors has led to a state where employees are so stressed and overwhelmed that their ability to function is seriously impaired, and their quality of life and job satisfaction plummet."
This overload affects employees' lives—and their loved ones'—both quantitatively and qualitatively. Quantitatively, because employees have less of a life when they process incoming messages around the clock. Evenings, weekends and vacations that used to belong to relaxing with family and friends have been replaced with work. Qualitatively, because when employees are run ragged by the endless pressure of a losing race, it reduces their ability to relax and devote time to their life, hobbies and families. Long hours are sometimes justified by an employee when they feel pride in a job well done. But it can be short-lived or denied because they slip back into the race against the continuing flood of communication.
Information overload is a significant contributor to stress in the workplace, and it bears several negative outcomes. An unexpected research finding comes from a survey of U.K. employees where temporary employees report better well-being, general health, more positive attitude toward work and better work behavior (e.g., less absenteeism) than their permanent counterparts. Researchers link this to the finding that many permanent workers reported high levels of work overload, relatively high levels of irritation, anxiety and depression and a strong interference of work with life at home.
There are no quick fixes to any of these issues. Like an addict trying to kick a dangerous habit, the first step to dealing with information overload is to admit there's a problem. Only then does the real work begin. As Zeldes has said, understanding the impact will require a multi-disciplined investigation into technology, psychology, and organizational culture and management practices.
Anything less isn't a solution.
This article originally appeared in Premium Incentive Products Magazine.