One of the worst causes of information overload is the constant arrival of email into the knowledge worker’s attention sphere. With new mail arriving every few minutes, people can never fully focus on their work. If they haven’t turned off the “you’ve got mail” alerts they are passively distracted; if they have, a sizable fraction of users still distract themselves by checking for new email every few minutes. What is needed is a way to prevent this checking.
Quiet Time in the information overload context is the conscious act of securing isolation from interruptions for at least hours at a time, in order to enable your mind to concentrate and excel. I’m not talking about occasional time out; this is about a structured, recurrent, pre-scheduled sequence of quiet intervals, week after week.
The recent temporary departure of Antonio Horta-Osorio from his role at Lloyds Banking Group was unusual in the candid use of the ‘S’-word – “stress” – in the bank’s announcement. For any number of reasons, leaders, their boards and investors are keen to avoid the word as part of the narrative in a leader’s exit. However, there have, in the last year or so, been a number of sudden, unplanned chief executive resignations that the press has attributed – at least in part – to stress.
This last article in the series addresses an impact of Information Overload that victimizes the individual knowledge worker directly, although the damage inevitably extends to the organization employing this individual. This is the degradation of the employee’s quality of life.
Information overload has started to play havoc with organizational processes in the nineties, and by now we’re so used to this that we barely remember the cause as we live with effects that we simply take for granted. Below I investigate how information overload is breaking vital processes in practically all knowledge‐based organizations.
In times past, people communicated by letters written on paper, and there were excellent incentives for applying optimal composition. – – – Email, the successor of the written letter, suffers from spillover from these trends – and from the lack of time caused by information overload. Nobody has the time to craft good messages and many wouldn’t know how if they did.
Email was invented in 1971, with a message crossing from one end of a room to the other via ARPANET, and has gone on to become a major presence in the life of every knowledge worker on the planet. We devote to it 20 hours a week, complaining endlessly about the overload and the stress. And yet – despite the availability of many more modern tools like IM and various Social Media, email is still here, based on the same paradigm it had 41 years ago.
If time loss is the most obvious way that Information Overload affects organizational effectiveness, the destruction of mental acuity is the least obvious one. It is also probably the worst, in terms of actual damage to the bottom line. What we’re talking about here is a reduction in a wide range of mental capacities, all of them highly relevant to the performance of knowledge work.
We need food to survive. Old food can do us harm. Therefore, we have a range of defense mechanisms – from our noses and taste buds to mandatory “best use before” dates on food packages – to detect and eliminate obsolete food.
We need information to survive in today’s workplace. Old information can do us harm. Where are the defense mechanisms to detect and eliminate obsolete knowledge?
We know that Information Overload costs knowledge workers around one day a week, but few people understand where this figure is coming from, how it was measured, and what the underlying time-waste mechanisms are.