Seven Steps to Lower Information Overload

There?s a lot being said about the problem ofinformation overload, but not much being actually done about it. Informationoverload makes people less able to manage thoughts and ideas, contemplate, andeven reason and think clearly. For many, it results in workdays that never seemto end, thereby destroying any semblance of work-life balance.

Research conducted at Basex shows that this problem cost theU.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 tothe problem. Since there are approximately 78.6 million knowledge workers inthe United States, this issue is one that needs to be addressed.

In 2004, we began to observe a phenomenon that we laternamed ?recovery time.? Recovery time is the amount of time it takes workers toget back to where they were in their work or thought process prior to aninterruption. According to our research, this takes somewhere between 10 to 20times 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, instantmessages, text messages, tweets, social network messages. Plus, many knowledgeworkers have numerous self-interruptions.

Since interruptions can occur many times each day, even whenthey are short, the recovery time adds up and can quickly become a significantdrain on the knowledge worker?s internal resources.

Let?s look at a few additional figures that were uncoveredby our research:

?          A minimum of28 billion hours is lost each year to information overload in the UnitedStates.

?          Reading andprocessing just 100 email messages can occupy more than half of a worker?s day.

?          It takesfive minutes to get back on track after a 30-second interruption.

?          For every100 people who are unnecessarily copied on an email, eight hours are lost.

?          58 percentof government workers spend half the workday filing, deleting or sortinginformation?at an annual cost of almost $31 billion dollars.

?          66 percentof knowledge workers feel they don?t have enough time to get all their workdone.

?          94 percentof those surveyed at some point have felt overwhelmed by information to thepoint of incapacitation.

One thing that can be done is to take individualresponsibility for the problem and act on it. Here are some suggestions thatI?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 thesubject line adequately explains the message, or that the sender didn?t burythe most important information near the bottom of the email. Our research showsthat 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 lineis specific. (Writing ?help needed? without further details helps no one.) Makesure the subject line explains the contents clearly. Use an introductoryparagraph to describe what the email will cover, if there is more than oneitem: ?This message covers three topics, namely A, B, and C.?

4. Think carefully when addressing email. Many people followthe ?CYA? principle and send emails to far more people than necessary.Remember, for every 100 people who are unnecessarily copied on an email, eighthours are lost.

5. Maintain a correct status on instant messaging andmonitor others? status before contacting them. If you unnecessarily interruptpeople who are deep in concentration, it could take quite a while for them toreturn to where they were and recollect their thoughts?if they don?t forget toreturn at all.

6. Argue. Learn to dramatically improve search results byusing a few ?arguments? such as ?and,? ?or? and ?near.? Using these terms torefine your search can decrease the number of results produced, saving time.Fifty percent of all searches fail outright, but a further 50 percent that wethink succeeded failed in some way, such as when they produce outdated orincorrect information.

7. Value your colleagues? time as if it were your own. If aresponse to an email is not immediately forthcoming, don?t call or send an IMasking, ?Did you get my e-mail??

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