Battling Information Overload
by Reid Goldsborough
Email. Blogs. Texting. Online discussion groups. Instant messaging. RSS feeds. Web sites. Not to mention such “old media” sources as newsletters, journals, reports, books, newspapers, and magazines. In this Jetsonian Tomorrowland we live in, facilitated by the Internet, we’re inundated with information.
Information overload isn’t a new phenomenon. Nearly two millennia ago, the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, “What is the use of having countless books and libraries whose titles their owners can scarcely read through in a whole lifetime? The learner is not instructed but burdened by the mass of them.”
Still, the quantity of information produced today is unprecedented. According to the study “How Much Information?” from the University of California at Berkeley, the amount of information produced in the world increases by about 30 percent every year. The Internet is a big part of this. According the Official Google Blog (googleblog.blogspot.com), Google achieved a milestone in 2008 by finding 1 trillion unique links on the Web, up from 1 billion in 2000.
The catchphrases shed light on the situation. We’re dealing with an “exoflood” of information, forcing us into a state of “continuous partial attention” and causing “interruption overload.” The consequences aren’t pretty. To try to keep up with the infoglut, we’re starting our workday earlier and ending it later, in some cases never ending it. With the help of the ever-expanding choices of ever-cooler portable communication devices, many of us are, less than blissfully, connected 24/7.
What’s more, as the level of information input increases, our capacity to process and retain that information decreases. The noggin is only so big. Try to fill it beyond its capacity, and you’ll wind up wandering around the streets asking for directions to the Yellow Brick Road. As a misguided weapon against the flood, some people periodically declare “email bankruptcy” by deleting all unread emails and starting afresh. The problem is, of course, that vital information might be in those deleted messages. Some companies have banned such communication media as instant messaging and blogging, regardless of whether they pertain to work-related issues.
Tips to Try
To study and raise awareness about the problem, interested parties from the corporate and academic worlds recently created the Information Overload Research Group (iorgforum.org).
Since much of the overload problem stems from the snippets of information that seem to constantly bombard and interrupt us, the group has put out some tips on dealing with snippets, including:
Set aside time for email each day to keep it from backing up.
Turn email notification off in your email program to prevent yourself from being continually interrupted as new emails arrive.
Read the entire thread of any email or discussion group message before responding to ensure you’re responding to the latest points made and not presenting information already provided.
When possible, send a message that’s only a subject line so recipients don’t have to open the email, ending the subject line with <EOM>, the acronym for End of Message.
The nonprofit Information Overload Research Group is supported in part by Basex Inc. (basex.com), a for-profit consulting firm specializing in helping improve the productivity of “knowledge workers.” Basex has put together a report titled “Information Overload: We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us.” Among the tips included in the report:
Don’t email someone and then immediately follow up with an instant message or phone call.
When possible, restrict individual emails to a single request or theme.
Make sure that the subject line of any email clearly reflects both the topic of the message and its urgency.
Read your own emails before sending them to make sure they will be clear to others, recognizing that typed words can often be misleading in tone and intent.
Don’t burden colleagues with unnecessary email, especially one-word replies such as “Thanks!” or “Great!” that are sent to the entire group that received the initial email.
Be patient with an instant message that doesn’t get an instant response, and make it clear when you’re busy or away and can’t respond immediately.
Supply all relevant details in any communication instead of assuming that recipients have the information.
Ours is an information society. It assails us, surrounds us, and demands our attention. How you deal with information can determine your professional and personal success to a great extent. Information can lead to knowledge and knowledge to wisdom, but managing information requires some wisdom of its own.
Reid Goldsborough, a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or reidgoldsborough.com.