Larry Cannell pointed me to a good posting by Daniel Tunkelang called “You Can’t Hurry Relevance“. Mr. Tunkelang obviously believes in the idea of attention management. I especially like the way he states the holy grail of attention management: a system that understands what is important to the user and dispositions messages accordingly. Well, I’ll let his own words shine here:
As an information consumer, I’d appreciate an interface that explicitly and transparently adapts to my priorities, and that manages interruption of my workflow accordingly
Here’s what I commented back on his entry regarding the statement above:
There will not be one tangible “thing” that manages interruptions based on priorities. But there will be a collection of technologies and capabilities that, taken together, can be used to manage attention. I call this collection of technologies and capabilities that manage attention the Enterprise Attention Management conceptual architecture. I posted this architectural model on the KnowledgeForward blog in 2006. You can find it here:
Since it is not one, purpose-built, tightly integrated set of pieces, it takes a walk-through to apply it to any particular problem. The problem you mention in this posting is e-mail, and you’ve provided 3 good suggestions on how to take advantage of urgency. I applied the EAM model to e-mail as an example and yielded 15 examples where technology could help, many of which are indeed available in some e-mail systems (although often buried or cludgy). You can see my list and how the EAM architecture helped derive it here:
I really like your thought that urgency should be taken into account in the e-mail process. You have some good ideas for the receiving end of e-mail. I still wouldn’t give up on the sender’s side too. When sending letters and packages, people don’t mind picking between a number of options (ground, express, signature required, etc.) that indicate urgency. If we can do a bit of behavior change (or possible force people via a token system), it’s interesting to think about how much e-mail could be improved. Easier said than done though.
I’ve noticed much that’s written about information overload starts from an assumption that a root cause of the problem is with humankind (or a particular sub-species known as “information workers” that lives in fuzzy cubes and whitewashed caves) and its inability to adjust to the rapid increase in content. This type of argument is known as evolutionary psychology. And it has proven to provide overly simplistic answers to behavioral questions. The WSJ article “Evolutionary Psych May Not Help Explain Our Behavior After All” referred to the book “Adapting Minds” and stated that “as Prof. Buller, a professor of philosophy at Northern Illinois University, dug deeper, he concluded that the claims of evo psych are ‘wrong in almost every detail’ because the data underlying them are deeply flawed.”
Information overload also adds the idea of evolutionary maladaptation, even though I haven’t seen that term used explicitly. But that’s clearly the argument being used – that the response of information workers to the proliferation of information is an evolutionary maladaptation, like that of humans being designed to seek and store fat to prepare for times of famine that never come in the developed world. The evolutionary maladaptation assumption silently underlies many of the studies, articles, and books related to information overload, e-mail overload, dangerous multi-tasking, and information stress.
But maybe it’s not true. And that matters because it changes where one looks for solutions.
If you believe information overload is a maladaptation than solutions – fancy and detailed as they may be – really just boil down to resisting destructive urges. Or, as Lee Gomes of the WSJ worded it “I don’t have much to offer in the way of solutions, save to nag everyone about steely self-discipline.” If this is an example of humans being wired for self-destructive behavior, then it leads to lots of “protect you from yourself” advice.
But if, by chance, information overload is within the realm of consciousness and under rational control, different solutions apply. Process change becomes feasible since people can be be told what to do and have as much chance as any other process change of succeeding. No subconscious, caveman instinct (“Ugh, more information always good! May help me kill sabre tooth tiger or mate with woman!”) will get in the way of altering people’s behavior. Providing technology that enables new functionality (not just for putting blinders on you, locking you out, etc.) has a chance of working too.
I don’t have the definitive answer, and I’m not sure there is one. But I do think that the same answers to “the information overload problem” (in quotes since I take a different angle on the issue) keep popping up because the same evolutionary maladaptation assumption is used. Trying a different assumption – one that puts the issue within the realm of higher reason to manage – can yield some different answers that should be explored.
Tom Davenport’s “The Attention Economy” is the best information overload/attention management book I’ve read so far (despite several flaws). For that reason alone I avoided obvious, snarky rebuttal titles for this blog post such as “Why We Don’t Care What Davenport Thinks About Information Overload” or just “Why We Don’t Care About Tom Davenport”.
But I don’t agree with his posting yesterday about “Why We Don’t Care About Information Overload“. Like a good writer, he summarizes his point best at the end:
the next time you hear someone talking or read someone writing about information overload, save your own attention and tune that person out. Nobody’s ever going to do anything about this so-called problem, so don’t overload your own brain by wrestling with the issue.
I’m guessing his goal was to agitate and get people thinking by presenting a stark point of view. He succeeded. His post brings up a number of issues
I too have written that there are often better things to focus on than information overload, such as attention management in general. “How should I make the most of the ever-increasing amount of information at my fingertips?” is the correct, attention management question to ask. Not “How do I reduce information overload?” or “How do I deal with the avalanche …”.
But I have also written in opposition to the nihilism that Mr. Davenport presents here and that is frequent in the hand-wringing treatises of the information overload crowd. There are key people in any organization that can take real action that improves the information abilities of many information workers.
He also makes the point that people won’t take the time to tune their information channels:
We could if we wanted to. How many of us bother to tune our spam filters? How many of us turn off the little evanescent window in Outlook that tells us we have a new email? Who signs off of social media because there’s just too much junk? Who turns off their BlackBerry or iPhone in meetings to ensure no distractions? Nobody, that’s who — or very few souls anyway.
In the presentations I’ve given on this topic, I devote a slide to this question and make the point that people will act when the cost of action exceeds the price of inaction. That may take a while, but if people are indeed annoyed enough they’ll figure out how to do something. And here’s my post on how to turn off the new email window in Outlook.
A final quibble: While attacking information overload, he adopts the same guru-tense “we” that his targets use. I’m not sure why so many people on both sides of this issue feel the need to speak for all of society when they talk (as I mentioned here). Do “we” care about information overload? Speak for yourself or those you know, but it is inappropriate to imply “it’s all of us (we) against just you”.
There are some good comments to his posting. One accuses him of misstating the audience member’s question so he could rant about information overload. Funny, but, if true, all too common. Once someone has a rant, it’s hard not to twist topics to hit it.
Another commenter (Lonny Eachus) wrote “Information overload is not spam. Spam is spam. Information overload, as it has been defined for decades now, is simply the vast amount of information that you have to deal with, in order to be successful in today’s world. It has little or nothing to do with spam.” I have studied this field for quite a while and haven’t actually heard that redefinition of information overload. I can see a slippery slope with the redefinition in that the large proportion of that vast information that doesn’t lead to action or insight can be defined as a kind of spam, so it’s turtles all the way down. Besides, I’ll let Basex and the Information Overload Research Group define information overload, which certainly does include interruptions, banal messages (if not spam), and other messages that get in the way of insight.
Great article in the New York Times about distracted drivers: “At 60 M.P.H., Office Work Is High Risk” (part of an ongoing series). I’ve shown a bit of skepticism in past entries about the extent of the cost of interruptions for information workers and the intractability of the problem. I’ve said many of the interruptions fall into models that are either a net positive for the organization with closed-loop analysis, required by social contract, or better classified as social interactions and distractions.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t think distractions are a major issue. Just that the cost, causes, and solutions are different for interruptions and distractions so it’s best not to blend them together. For example, the messaging inbox is the most classic information worker distraction, but it can be dealt with by turning off toasts (for wired workers) or mobile devices.
I have also assumed that the task one is being distracted from is important, but not life critical such as performing surgery, disarming a bomb, sneaking up on an insurgent safehouse … or driving. Distracted drivers are, in my opinion, a serious issue.
I think this issue decomposes into several parts and the NYT article is the first I’ve seen that does a good job of addressing most of them:
Shaking and shaming users: The ‘ol shake&shame is a one-two punch. Start with horrifying anecdotes, articles, stats, and videos on how bad your behavior is without you knowing it. Then follow with shaming by describing how inconsiderate these drivers are, how dumb it is (if it’s an editorial), how you’re not that important that you need to respond immediately, and end with its effects on the people and family of those injured or killed.
Legal: Can you successfully outlaw texting while driving? It’s symbolic and, like seat belt laws, something that adds a slight risk of penalty after the fact if something happens (like tracing text messages to a conductor seconds before a crash). Hey, it’s worth a shot for those extreme cases when something tragic results.
Psychological: How distractable are people? Can they really multi-task? Is it an addiction, ADHD, etc? It certainly seems to me the majority of SUVs veering into my lane, driving real slow and then making a quick move, or running red lights slowly are on a mobile device. And the research confirms my suspicions that technology like handsfree interfaces don’t solve the problem. And while I think multi-tasking can work for information workers with coarsely grained, long-running tasks, I think it’s deadly for drivers. There’s a fun game to test this at the NYT site.
Expectations: To what extent do the expectations of employers, customers, family, and other message senders drive the apparent need to respond immediately? To what extent does an expectation of productivity later require culling messages now? This is the part I’ve spent the most time thinking about and the NYT article finally sheds some light on. No employer admits to requiring these responses (duh), but the plumber example shows how competitive pressure provides informal expectations. I was in a cab going home from the airport on Friday and the taxi computer had popped up that a van was needed in zone 776. My driver, since we were in a van, spent the next 10 minutes trying to rapidly respond to accept the pickup. One time we came close enough to rear-ending another car that I was bug-eyed for a few seconds. It seems the computer was smart enough to not allow him to claim the pickup for some reason, whether it’s because we were moving or the GPS noticed we were too far for him to promise a pickup (which would explain why my taxis always take twice as long as promised to arrive for pickups).
Success at getting people to stop texting while driving will depend more on managing the expectations of message senders for quick responses than it will on shaking&shaming, laws, or better research. This goal is difficult to impossible depending on each situation. “Feeling important” may be solvable with shaking&shaming, but for the plumber or taxi driver whose livelihood depends on picking up a job before the next guy gets it will be nearly impossible to reach.
Still, there may be some hope if the Domino’s Pizza example applies. Domino’s advertising set an expectation for 30 minute delivery, but some large settlements for accidents prompted them to water down the expectation (to “satisfaction guaranteed”). I haven’t seen statistics on whether the settlements have decreased, but the goal was certainly that eliminating the expectation would eliminate the reckless driving behavior it caused. Over time the same may occur to some extent with distracted driving. For example, if a plumbing company anywhere in the US has to pay a multi-million dollar settlement and it goes viral on the news, you could see plumbing companies change their process to round-robin assignments or select randomly from all responses within the next 2 hours.
Great article in the New York Times on “Taming Your Digital Distractions“. While it does follow the “e-mail and social networking = useless distractions” narrative that I find passe, so do most other articles, presentations, books, and studies on information overload. So I can’t blame Farhad Manjoo for that.
Besides, what I like is that it gets away from the empty pondering of what we’re doing to our lives and simple time management tips and, instead, provides a slew of actual technologies to try out. I hadn’t seen these. Here are the ones in the article and I’ve added links to each. (Note: I haven’t tried them, so this isn’t an endorsement).
- WriteRoom (full-screen, single-tasking, simple word processing)
- Dark Room (full-screen, single-tasking, simple word processing)
- RescueTime Solo (attention shielding and metrics)
- LeechBlock (attention shielding for Firefox)
While some information overload evangelists would hope these cold turkey tools would demonstrate to someone how addicted they are, I actually would hope for the opposite: that after an hour or so of getting work done they realize they didn’t really miss those distractions and that their social networks didn’t come crashing down because some responses were delayed.
Once people realize that poor decisions cause their information stress rather than bad evolutionary wiring in their brains or addiction, I think they are more likely to make useful changes to their work processes to improve their efficiency.
From the Stanford University News (8/24/09)
Nass and his colleagues, Eyal Ophir and Anthony Wagner, set out to learn what gives multitaskers their edge. What is their gift?
“We kept looking for what they’re better at, and we didn’t find it,” said Ophir, the study’s lead author and a researcher in Stanford’s Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab.
Nass used 3 tests that involved noticing changes in short term abstractions, such as whether two rectangles changed position, whether a letter had previously appeared in sequence, and attending to attributes of letters or numbers in a mixed set. In all cases multitaskers did worse than non-multitaskers since they were easily distracted.
From the little I’ve read of this study (I could certainly have missed important details) I don’t think the study goals were aimed properly. If one assumes for the moment that multitasking is an intentional activity meant to achieve a purpose, the natural question is: what is that purpose? The study seems to look for side effects of multitasking behavior, but without a hypothesis about what the purpose is. I believe the purpose may be better handling of multiple tasks that have each have intermittent stimuli. In other words, tasks where there are many gaps when your attentiveness is not needed. For example, building a piece of furniture requires long stretches where one must wait for glue or varnish to dry. Likewise, staring at an email inbox for 8 solid hours would not reward the user since there are gaps of many minutes between messages. Multitasking – checking email while waiting for a coat of polyurethane to dry – enables both tasks to be completed more effectively. I did a blog entry on “Mandatory Multitasking” back in 2006 on this multitasking pattern.
I think a more accurate test would be a long-term writing assignment (say, summarizing a set of three twenty page papers into a 10 page paper in 4 hours) while playing an investment game that rewards reaction to events (such as payoffs for noticing trends that decreases rapidly over time). Add some random interruptions as well for an extra element. Quality of the summary and final investment tally would provide a weighted score. The participant would have to be good at interrupting themselves and resuming their long-running task (“scanning the horizon”) in order to excel at the financial part of the score.
As designed, the Nass test tested attention shielding (a capability for pushing unimportant messages and content further from the observer’s focus). The test I propose above evaluates interruptability instead. The study’s abstract confirms this as it defines multitaskers by attention shielding rather than self-controlled task switching (“heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory.”)
That said, I’m not positive or convinced that multitasking is intentional and purposeful. But I think the possibility must be considered. In this case, considering its purpose can guide development of experiments that test its value against its intended purpose. It also reframes the issue. The issue may be that some multitaskers miscategorize some tasks as intermittent (such as driving or air traffic control) that they shouldn’t rather than all multitasking on all tasks being suboptimal. Or maybe some multitaskers have difficulty breaking long-running tasks up into smaller tasks that provide interruptible boundaries. But I don’t think that multitaskers are some sort of dysfunctional species.
So, you’ve survived Information Overload Awareness Day. Your eyes were opened to the stress, poor decision making, and cold hard cash being sacrificed on the altar of our always-on, always-connected, go-go-go culture. Now what do you do?
Well, first I’d recommend coming down off the mountain a little bit and taking a view of the issue from the ground. Consider that the proliferation of information and communication channels should not be seen entirely in the negative (the “overload” problem). The implication is that if you don’t feel the problem, someone must not have shaken you hard enough with studies on stress, the difficulty of finding things, or put a big enough number on the cost.
Some exaggeration (or, to be more accurate, exclusive focusing on the negative) may be useful to shake people awake and scare them straight. But there’s a risk they will become hysterical or stare into space. After all, once one can see the information apocalypse is neigh, one has to figure out what to do about it. Those who do little gain only a sense of futility; they can see what is happening but do nothing about it. While those who do too much risk vast unintended consequences. Social bonds and efficiency suffer when people behave selfishly to shield themselves from interruptions that are unnecessary (to them). Short lived attempts to change etiquette result in long-term feelings of bullying and reduce the effectiveness of future attempts. Once-a-week time-outs (of e-mail, meetings) just shift the burden to other days while avoiding a root cause of the inefficiency: messages maintaining their channel without being pulled forward or pushed back as needed.
I believe that an organization-wide, systemic, balanced approach that aims to improve efficiency for all workers is preferable to defining the situation in negative terms which start a war in response that can have vast unintended consequences. You can do take a balanced view by starting to think about:
- A model (enterprise attention management) to organize, elicit (as an intuition pump), and communicate potential improvements that can increase the efficiency of a large number of workers (a systemic fix) rather than just personal tips on how any one person interested can help themselves
- Who are the couple of people in your organization that can have a positive impact on the attention management abilities of everyone in the company? What can executives and owners of communication systems do that is more than what any one individual worker can do?
- “Closed loop” rather than selfish view of interruptions. Consider each interruption as an interaction between the interrupter and those interrupted and determining, as a whole, if it was useful to the organization. So what is a real interruption in your business? What is “interrupted” versus “distracted” and what is an “unnecessary” interruption (does the person doing the interruption ever think their interruption is unnecessary and if not, who gets to judge)?
- How social contracts and organizational structure influence interruptions and information flows in ways that aren’t captured in overload calculations and may result in unintended consequences if disrupted
- How technology can help. Technology is not the answer, but it’s certainly a lot of the problem and, accordingly, can be a participant in an improvement approach. With a model in place, attentional capabilities of tools can be enumerated and used to their fullest extent to address known problems
- Teachable moments. Much of the information overload is due to etiquette and culture, but browbeating people to change their ways has little effect. It’s been said that you can’t force changes in culture, but yet there are certainly cases where culture has been drastically changed. Part of the answer lies in exploiting teachable moments to make positive changes in counterproductive communication and information management behaviors
- Pacing. Try to get a realistic idea of how much improvement you can actually target. Even if 28% of workers’ days are wasted, 0% isn’t the proper target. Step back and think about what the real target should be to get a realistic picture of potential cost savings. By all means, use the Basex number as an example of one extreme way of estimating it, but follow up by talking about the importance of determining a realistic goal for improvement. Once you get executives to buy into a strategy based upon dollar savings rather than quality and speed of decision making and employee retention, you’ll be expected to prove how much you’ve saved in hard dollars later. Don’t use a sum of personal observations (rather than closed-loop), depend on colloquial and self-determined definitions, or build overall angst into your number
So, it’s a good thing if IOAD created an awareness that wasn’t there. But the real value comes now – the day after – when organizations struggle with how to approach something described as such an enormous problem with tendrils in sociology, psychology, physiology, technology, and business. My recommendation is to leave the negative framing (“overload”, “problem”) and self-helpy, guru-talk aside. Now is the time to recast the issue in terms of systemic efficiency that can be analyzed with a conceptual model and target improvements that are both reasonable and achievable.
Note: This is a cross-posting from the Collaboration and Content Strategies blog.
I’m just putting the finishing touches on a new document on Enterprise Attention Management. This one will be a short primer on our view of the subject. It’s been over two years since my main document on EAM was published and my thinking has evolved as I’ve hit questions from people at presentations and in private conversations. It’s also been shaped by the press coverage of information overload and e-mail overload – often by encouraging me to put warning signs in front of some slippery slopes that they wander into: Counting all distractions as interruptions? Lumping interruptions into information overload? Using 100% focus and efficiency as the benchmark to compare “cost of overload” to? Assuming only tips and tricks for individuals can chip away at it? Yeesh!
After a brief description of what enterprise attention management is and its business context, I describe 4 points that are key for my position on EAM:
1. Not Everyone Feels Overloaded
As strongly as you and a few like-minded people may feel about the impacts of information overload, a lot more people just don’t notice or care. But improving efficiency and reaction time: that’s something everyone can get behind. Get away from having to shake everyone awake about the “problem” and its a lot easier for others to get on board with your efficiency argument.
2. Key People in an Organization Can Take Action to Improve Efficiency of Information Workers
You can try to organize your little information garden and give tips to your teammates to do the same and one small portion of your company will breathe a little easier. But there are a few people who select the gardening tools and set expectations for everyone’s gardens – they have a different set of things they can do to help everyone in the organization.
3. Use EAM as a Lens to Understand Impacts of New Information-based Technologies
Enterprise attention management can be used as a lens to analyze how various technologies and programs will impact the attention of information workers. One recent example of applying this architecture is the “EAM for e-mail” posting I did here.
4. Influence Process and Culture Selectively
An evangelical approach to “information overload” starts with declaring it “bad” and then figuring out how to force people not to overload each other. A more practical approach does not see lots of information as good or bad, but rather focuses on efficiency and looks for key moments when processes and culture can be influenced. These include teachable moments, such as new hire training or rolling out a new technology. They do not include an e-mail blast or interoffice memo out of nowhere telling everyone how they should now behave.
I’m writing this blog post from a nice Japanese tea house near my home office. While it’s nice, the real reason I’m working here has to do with the truck-mounted jackhammer tearing up the alley right outside my window. The noise was shaking things on my office bookshelves. Even putting on headphones didn’t help as my feet kept picking up pounding vibrations.
There is a lot written about the impact of interruptions in the workplace and their cost on productivity. I have written that much of what is lumped into “interruptions” is really a set of different problems and solutions better known as distractions and social interactions. Still, today’s experience has emphasized that attention can be difficult to focus (and productivity lost) for other reasons as well. The jackhammer and bulldozer don’t really count as interruptions. Indeed, the noise was quite constant for hours. It’s hard to lose focus when you never have it in the first place! I simply had a noisy environment that made it difficult to concentrate. No amount of focus on keeping out interruptions would have helped. The only solution was my Ceylon tea and scone haven.
I remember a situation when I was a management consultant where I worked for a few months on one floor of an office building where it was so quiet people had to whisper on the phone. I then had occasion to visit a consultant working in a department on another floor and was shocked at the cacophony he worked in. Same basic roles, same cube layout, but it was all noisy from loud conversations, hustling and bustling, and difficult to concentrate. It seemed to be just a cultural difference in terms of expectations and etiquette between the departments. A new employee sinking into their cube for the first time would naturally assume a conversational volume in line with those around him. Maybe some people would prefer one or the other? I was happy to retreat back to my quiet cube to work. And put on my headphones.
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). You can see the comment I entered in the comments tab on the article (click here and look for Craig Roth). Now that I re-read it, my comment sounds more harsh than intended. It’s not a bad thing that this issue gets more attention. There’s something to be said for the Basex approach of shaking people awake and getting them to see the danger in their current path. The $900 billion number is like the “you won’t live to see your kid’s graduation” pronouncement that physicians sometimes trot out if an unhealthy patient is ignoring his more measured advice to lose weight and exercise.
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.
Get people to think about:
- “Closed loop” rather than selfish view of interruptions (treating each interruption as an interaction between the interrupter and those interrupted and determining, as a whole, if it was useful to the organization)
- Pacing (even if 28% of workers’ days are wasted, 0% isn’t the proper target; step back and think about what the real target should be to get a realistic picture of potential cost savings)
- What they really mean by interrupted versus distracted and what people call “unnecessary” interruptions (does the person doing the interruption ever think their interruption is unnecessary and if not, who gets to judge?
- How social contracts and organizational structure influence interruptions and information flows in ways that aren’t captured in overload calculations
- By all means, use the Basex number as an example of one extreme way of estimating it, but follow up by talking about the importance of determining a realistic goal for improvement. Once you get executives to buy into a strategy based upon dollar savings rather than quality and speed of decision making and employee retention, you’ll be expected to prove how much you’ve saved in hard dollars later. The Basex number – from what I can tell – doesn’t serve that purpose since it’s a sum of personal observations rather than closed-loop, depends on colloquial and self-determined definitions, and is more an indication of overall angst than a number to actually target as waste.
- How technology can help. Technology is not the answer, but it’s certainly a lot of the problem and, accordingly, can be a participant in an improvement approach
- Teachable moments. Much of the information overload is due to etiquette and culture. It’s been said that you can’t force changes in culture, but there are certainly cases where culture has drastically changed. Part of the answer lies in exploiting teachable moments to make positive changes in counterproductive communication and information management behaviors.
- If you’re in a business publication, talk about systematic changes that can improve the efficiency of a large number of workers rather than just personal tips on how any one person interested can help themselves. What can executives and owners of communication systems do that is more than what any one individual worker can do?