Information overload 201

Craig Roth has an interesting take on the usual "information overload" article in WSJ Offers Information Overload 101 Again.

The WSJ published another article on information overload, which they generally do when Basex releases a new number on information overload, unnecessary interruptions, or interruptions (it’s evolved over the years). ...

Still, I’d like to see some of these articles getting past the “information overload 101? template: observation on how we’re overloaded, quote from overloaded person, “woe is me” pronouncement, attitudinal survey stat, latest Basex figure, quote from an organized executive, personal time and attention management tips.

Craig provides a list of additional items that these information overload articles should cover, and I have some of my favorite topics as well.  But first off, stop the silly X% lost-time-due-to-overload by employees equates to Y billions of wasted dollars.  I just don't buy it.  The time isn't totally wasted, and I am fairly sure the "savings" by making the problem go away would not fall to the bottom line of the company.

So, what should be in a "information overload 201" course, instead of the repeats of "101," as Craig suggests?

  • One of my favorite "101" skills: Don't process the same thing multiple times.  This is particularly problematic when you have multiple platforms (mobile devices) that don't do a good job of letting you process those inputs properly.  Processing actions: Delete, Do it, Delay, Delegate.
  • Information overload doesn't only affect individuals.  There is a whole culture around giving / asking for too much information.  Work together to devise the best strategies for communications.  (Talk to Luis Suarez about intelligent use of social media, and no more email.)
  • As Craig asks, consider what is a reasonable amount of time to be spending processing your information (and that is more than just email).  Decide what is right for you - for each other - and find ways to keep it at that level as a maximum.  Look for ways to reduce it further.
  • Email (technology) is not a substitute for collaboration.  Excessive email is probably a crutch for collaboration that isn't happening in better ways, such as face-to-face or on the phone.  I've seen many organizations where the team can't agree on anything, but they never actually talk to each other.

I also note that the WSJ article has a suggestion (from someone at IBM) to take greater advantage of social media tools.  That is a step outside the normal box of Information Overload 101.

What would you put in an article about information overload if you weren't allowed to use the usual tropes about dollars lost due to wasted time?  How would you expand the "how to overcome" section to something new or different?

5 Comment(s)

Joining Dots said:

I would start by making it clear that information overload is a perception, not a real problem. Simple example - do I need to know how many leaves are on the tree outside to appreciate my garden? No. That would be a waste of time. Fortunately it would also be such a boring activity I would never bother to try. That's the challenge. We suffer information overload when we try to track too much stuff out of sheer curiosity rather than for a specific purpose. (And to further feed the dilemma, sometimes that curiosity uncovers a hidden gem that makes all the time spent worthwhile).

It seems to be an innate feature of human nature that we like to seek out information, solve puzzles (a digitised version of the hunter-gatherer). That's why computer and word games can be so addictive and social networking sites are showing the same traits. The Internet has simply widened our hunting ground and offers so much more to gather. Unfortunately and unlike food, it seems we can never consume too much information.

It's not about controlling information overload, it's about controlling how you spend your time. Another simple example. Whilst I don't feel inclined to count the leaves on the tree outside, I am killing time reading this blog post when I ought to be finishing off a proposal that is due in today. Information overload is a choice. Those who disagree will almost certainly treat a lot of information as far more important than it really is in our decisions and actions.

If businesses are worrying about time lost due to info overload, they should try making jobs more interesting... We still have the same amount of time in a day, it just comes down to how we manage and use it.

I'm being a little blunt but otherwise I'm in danger of turning this comment into a full blog post and I need to get back to that proposal... :-) (that was example no.3)

I like your points, they are getting to the heart of what makes it problematic for people. I think there is a change going on though towards more information and more rapid scanning. You can wonder whether this leads really to better results. I think a professional who is good in dealing with information knows first and for all to focus. If you don't know your professional interests, you get lost.

Erwin Klemens said:

I have been actively engaged in trying to reduce the occurance of information overload within several groups in our company for the past five years or so. We have ca. 12.000 information workers in these areas and our preliminary study shows a fairly high cost
from this problem.

More recently, we are embarked on a formal assessment of our information overload cost with help from Basex.

As opposed to taking measures to collabratie e-mail or to cease processing the same thing over and over, we have found that merely broaching the topic of information overload with our workers has raised their awareness of the problem and how they can take steps to reduce information overload for everyone.

This is a great story. Merely highlighting that there is a problem and there are some simple solutions often provides some very quick wins. I hope you are looking to the future for reinforcing this new behavior and considering what to do to help take things to a new level.

Charlie Curtis Author Profile Page said:

In my job as a CIO, I've been working on tackling information overload with mixed results. My company, a professional services firm, suffers more than most because of a couple of infrastructure problems that arose from a couple of mergers.

I've been trying to get my colleagues to acknowledge that attacking our information overload problem will improve our overall knowledge sharing collaboration efforts and also contribute to our bottom line. But some people here just don't understand the extent of the problem.

I just read about information overload awarenesss day and I've signed up our company as a participant and designated site - I hope this will get my point across to my colleagues and help them understand what we can do to improve our overall position relative to information overload. For others in my position (and I'm sure there are many of you) I encourage you to do the same, Information is available at

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