Our Information Overload conference no doubt pushed attendees above and beyond the bounds of overload.  As a public service here (as Tom Lehrer would say), I’ll review highlights.

The keynote address (mine, actually) presented an overview of the problem, including costs, problem areas, and a few things we can do about the problem right now.

Just to review:

  • The cost of unnecessary interruptions plus recovery time (time spent getting back to where you were, if indeed you do get back there) to the U.S. economy is $650 billion as of 2007.
  • Most interruptions are neither urgent nor important (but we think they are as we go and interrupt people anyway).
  • The above represents 28% of the knowledge worker’s day.A mere 12% of the knowledge worker’s day is spent in thought or reflection.
  • We spend 15% of the day searching for things and 20% in meetings.

Food for thought:

  • We send too much e-mail.  When “cc” meant carbon copy, we could send three or four.  Now we think nothing of sending 300.  Let’s rethink that.
  • Our need for instant gratification (perhaps fueled by the founding of Fedex, which introduced overnight delivery in 1973), causes us to interrupt others when we don’t get an immediate answer; our (mistaken) belief that everything we are doing is both urgent and important lends a false sense of importance to our mission and that too causes us to interrupt others too much.
  • E-mail is like Tetris.  As soon as you line up the boxes, more come down.
  • Think before clicking reply-to-all, or even sending a reply of “Great. Thanks.” acknowledging someone’s e-mail.

CIO Panel
David Goldes, Basex’ president, presented Max Christoff from Morgan Stanley, Shari Pfleeger Lawrence from the Rand Corporation, and Nathan Zeldes from Intel, talking about the problems their organizations face with respect to information overload.

To review;

  • An Intel employee receives 350 e-mail messages per week on average (but executives receive an average of 300 per day)
  • At Morgan Stanley, the average employee receives 625 e-mail messages per week (but the average executive over 500 per day).
  • Intel employees spend, on average, 20 hours per week managing e-mail.

Key insight:
According to Christoff, the competitive advantage we gained from getting more information faster is starting to disappear.  Companies need to focus on how to provide more relevant information where it’s needed.

Visionary Vendor Panel
Borrowed conceptually from Basex’ Strategic Thinkers conferences, the Visionary Vendor Panel was a forum for thought leaders and visionaries. Companies were selected because they are both innovative and offer solutions that could lessen the impact of Information Overload.

  • ActionBase (Eyal Maor, CEO) – ActionBase cuts down on e-mail by introducing structure to workflow that gets action items to the right people, at the right time.
  • ClearContext (Deva Hazarika, CEO) – ClearContext provides a tool for Outlook that helps knowledge workers identify and contextually relate important information.
  • Quick Comments (Greg Petras, CEO) – Quick Comments is a tool that enables users to quickly extract relevant information from feedback and comments on a product, content, or expertise without sifting through pages of written comments.
  • RescueTime (Tony Wright, CEO) – RescueTime is a tool that keeps track of how much time is spent using various applications, such as e-mail, word processing, Web browsing, etc.
  • Seriosity (Leighton Read, Chairman) – Seriosity allows e-mail senders to compensate recipients with “Serios”, a form of online currency developed specifically for e-mail, creating an economic incentive to deal with more valuable information first.
  • Siemens (Ross Sedgewick) – Siemens OpenScape allows knowledge workers to find colleagues faster, cutting down on wasted time and phone and voicemail tag.

Bit LiteracyMark Hurst, founder of Creative Good, spoke about the virtues of an empty inbox and the three “D’s”: Delete, Defer, and avoiD.  Computer literacy, according to Hurst is not sufficient.  Knowledge workers need to develop a far greater fluency and literacy in the use of e-mail, file management, managing images, and managing tasks.  E-mail overload, according to Hurst, is caused by “the lack of to-do management.”  Tools such as gootodo.com go a long way in reducing e-mail overload.

No Time to Think

Not surprisingly, that was the title of David Levy’s presentation at the event.  Levy presented a fascinating paradox, namely that, just as we are creating new tools for knowledge work and collaboration (and as our economy is becoming more knowledge based), we are losing the time we need to think.

Levy referenced Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Barbara McClintock who, in her studies of corn plants, was able to take enough time to look and hear what the material (her corn plants, specifically) was able to say to her.  Indeed she exhorted people to be contemplative, to “take the time and look,” but in many cases this was met with puzzlement.  Technology has continuously accelerated the pace of research and that appeared to be incompatible with her more contemplative view.

Levy made a solid case for setting aside time for contemplation although he pointed out an interesting paradox: the inspiration for today’s knowledge sharing and collaborative tools comes from Vannevar Bush’s memex, a portmanteau of “memory extender,” which he wrote about in his landmark article “As We May Think” in the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.  Bush envisaged tools that automate the more mundane and routine aspects of knowledge work, freeing up the knowledge worker to have more time to think.  Unfortunately the introduction of more technology did not achieve this goal.

Levy also looked into our leisure time as examined by Roman Catholic theologian and philosopher Josef Pieper.  For the ancient Greeks, leisure was not merely free time but a goal of the highest order.  Pieper, writing in post-Second World War Germany, saw a nation in danger of being all-consumed by work.  Germany was in danger of losing its leisure time, as defined by the Greeks.  The accelerating pace of work can best be described in a decline of the work-life balance and the attempt to multi-task at sporting events and other leisure time activities.

Levy’s solution is to reintroduce more contemplative practices into both work and academic settings.  While it will be hard to undo the damage caused by multitasking and information overload, finding more time to think, via contemplation and meditative practices, will hopefully offset the damage that these problems occasion.

Driven to Distraction

Last but not least on the program was Maggie Jackson.

Jackson was one of the first journalists to interview me on the topic of information overload; she writes for the Boston Globe (a fact that led me, until a month or so ago, to believe she lived in Boston) on the topic of work-life balance.

Jackson’s book, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, was recently published and, given her knowledge in this field and the timing of her book, I thought it appropriate to invite her to speak about the book (and to sign a few copies as well).

The underlying theme of Jackson’s book is the erosion of attention, attention to work, attention to information, even attention to eating and leisure activities.  If we continue to squander how we use attention, we may descend into an era where emptiness rather than fulfillment rules, where one never goes sufficiently in depth in one area because a virtual clock is ticking that guarantees something will intrude three minutes hence.

Yet all is not lost.

Technologies may appear to rule but the threat of machines taking over is not a new theme.  Rampant in science fiction and the cinema (think Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times), indeed S. Fowler’s “Automata” (1929) comes to mind (machines take over all human activities and eventually eliminate the human species).  A few others of this genre include E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909), about a future earth where a central machine makes all decisions and caters to all needs through automated appendages (most humans live below ground and need the omnipotent Machine for survival) and Lionel Britton’s “The Brain” (1930), where a mechanical brain is the last and only form of intelligence on a doomed planet earth fifty million years hence (to its credit, it does contain all knowledge in existence).

George Parons Lathrop envisaged a 22nd century with automated factories run by a single person at a keyboard in “In the Deep of Time” and Jules Verne’s “Paris in the Twentieth Century” foresaw giant calculating machines that resembled “huge pianos,” also operated via a keyboard.

But back to Jackson, who argued that our inability to focus portends an impending Dark Age, which would translate to our civilization’s decline despite technological advancement.  While the world becomes a global village, it has also become more fragmented and disembodied.

Distracted is well researched (although a good part of Jackson’s research is outside of the past half century), well rounded, reasonably focused on the issue (although there are inexplicable detours, such as the cultural history of the fork), and it should be required reading for every knowledge worker.  You can purchase a copy at Amazon.com by clicking here.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and Vice President, Research, of IORG.


  1. Digsby is a free program which combines IM, Email, and Social Networking into one. I’ve been using it for a few weeks now, and it’s really good. I’m running 3 IM accounts, facebook, myspace, and 2 gmail accounts on it and everything works. I’m honestly impressed so far.

    Check it out and download it here: http://www.lan5.net/digsby.html

    I do have a one problem with it though. I can’t figure out how to put links into my profile. It’s not that big of a deal though.

    What do you think, is Digsby better than Trillian and those other communication programs?

  2. In Europe, we have similar issues with too much infomation. From my business and academic practice it clearly shows that receiving too many e-mails for a single person to handle is a symptom of an underlying cause: people have not been trained nor are they still trained in effective communication.

    Information and communication literacy is hardly ever thought at educational institutes to date. Students are also not taught that persons strongly differ in their information attitude and information behavior. That behavior even changes between the various media and in due time!

    As one of my students explained: “I never use e-mail. Neither of my friends does, unless there is a formal request. E-mail is senior citizen chat.”
    She is tomorrow’s, or even today’s, employee.

  3. Now I see that there is much more going on than simple procrastination. Thank you for this summary. One thing I see clearly is the anxiety surrounding information received either by email, or on a web page. “If it’s there, in print, then I can’t risk missing the material, if it has anything at all to do with my work.” If I close a book, the book is still on my desk, and I can mark the page with a book mark. But there are never as many books as there are emails–it would be like having a hundred books piling up on my desk in less than a week. And there is a generosity about books–we can wander around in them, find new things while looking for a remembered passage. Perhaps part of the problem is that we continue to react to information in cyber space as if it were printed on paper and bound. Books encourage contemplation in a way that emails don’t.

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