Seven Steps to Lower Information Overload

By Jonathan Spira Print this article Print

How to keep yourself sane and functional in a world awash in data.

There’s a lot being said about the problem of information overload, but not much being actually done about it. Information overload makes people less able to manage thoughts and ideas, contemplate, and even reason and think clearly. For many, it results in workdays that never seem to end, thereby destroying any semblance of work-life balance.Research conducted at Basex shows that this problem cost the U.S. economy about $997 billion in 2010. Regardless of the job and individual, each worker loses somewhere between 15 and 25 percent of his or her day due to the problem. Since there are approximately 78.6 million knowledge workers in the United States, this issue is one that needs to be addressed.

In 2004, we began to observe a phenomenon that we later named “recovery time.” Recovery time is the amount of time it takes workers to get back to where they were in their work or thought process prior to an interruption. According to our research, this takes somewhere between 10 to 20 times the duration of the interruption. A 30-second interruption, for example, could easily require five minutes of recovery time.

Interruptions come in many forms: phone calls, instant messages, text messages, tweets, social network messages. Plus, many knowledge workers have numerous self-interruptions.

Since interruptions can occur many times each day, even when they are short, the recovery time adds up and can quickly become a significant drain on the knowledge worker’s internal resources.

Let’s look at a few additional figures that were uncovered by our research:

•          A minimum of 28 billion hours is lost each year to information overload in the United States.

•          Reading and processing just 100 email messages can occupy more than half of a worker’s day.

•          It takes five minutes to get back on track after a 30-second interruption.

•          For every 100 people who are unnecessarily copied on an email, eight hours are lost.

•          58 percent of government workers spend half the workday filing, deleting or sorting information—at an annual cost of almost $31 billion dollars.

•          66 percent of knowledge workers feel they don’t have enough time to get all their work done.

•          94 percent of those surveyed at some point have felt overwhelmed by information to the point of incapacitation.

One thing that can be done is to take individual responsibility for the problem and act on it. Here are some suggestions that I’ve found useful:

1. Use restraint in communications. Don’t copy the world; don’t include more people than necessary in any communication; avoid gratuitous “thanks” and “great” replies, and avoid reply-to-all emails.

2. Read incoming email messages carefully. Don’t assume the subject line adequately explains the message, or that the sender didn’t bury the most important information near the bottom of the email. Our research shows that most knowledge workers read only the first paragraph of any given email.

3. Read outbound email messages carefully. Write clearly, and don’t combine unrelated topics in one message. Make sure the subject line is specific. (Writing “help needed” without further details helps no one.) Make sure the subject line explains the contents clearly. Use an introductory paragraph to describe what the email will cover, if there is more than one item: “This message covers three topics, namely A, B, and C.”

4. Think carefully when addressing email. Many people follow the “CYA” principle and send emails to far more people than necessary. Remember, for every 100 people who are unnecessarily copied on an email, eight hours are lost.

5. Maintain a correct status on instant messaging and monitor others’ status before contacting them. If you unnecessarily interrupt people who are deep in concentration, it could take quite a while for them to return to where they were and recollect their thoughts—if they don’t forget to return at all.

6. Argue. Learn to dramatically improve search results by using a few “arguments” such as “and,” “or” and “near.” Using these terms to refine your search can decrease the number of results produced, saving time. Fifty percent of all searches fail outright, but a further 50 percent that we think succeeded failed in some way, such as when they produce outdated or incorrect information.

7. Value your colleagues’ time as if it were your own. If a response to an email is not immediately forthcoming, don’t call or send an IM asking, “Did you get my e-mail?”

Jonathan Spira is CEO and chief analyst at Basex, a research firm in the New York City area. He is the author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous to Your Organization.  

This article was originally published on 2011-12-05
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