The Myth of Information Overload « IT Organization Circa 2017

August 6, 2008 at 9:42 am | Posted in Attention Management, Information Work, interruption science | Leave a comment

My last posting (“I’m a Conscientious Objector in the War on Interruptions“) was about how, despite my belief that information overload and interruptions are a real issue, some pundits go too far in lumping all sorts of issues in with it and propagating potentially misleading statistics on the problem.  I just found a blog posting from Vaughan Merlyn that summarizes this issue beautifully:

if you pick the wrong label, you might misunderstand the problem, and thus come up with the wrong solution (or at least, come up with a solution that generates all sorts of undesirable, unintended consequences!)  If you think of the problem as information overload you might look for a solution that cuts back on the information, and that would be a crime!

There is indeed danger in misdiagnosing this problem. I had an exchange with one information overload pundit (a group I’ll include myself in as well).  We agree it’s a problem, but I disagree when he lumps all sorts of inefficiencies like socializing, distractions, and a one-sided view of interruptions into the IO bucket. When I pointed out how much of that isn’t strictly an IO problem and that there’s danger of overmedicating for this problem, his answer was effectively “So what? We all know the amount of IO is so high there’s no chance of cutting into good interruptions and information flows anyways”

Despite the “myth” statement in Vaughn’s title, he did say later that he thinks information overload is a real problem.  It’s just that “my assertion [is that] that coming at this as an “information overload” issue presumes some things about the problem that are misleading and potentially dangerous”.

Agreed. It’s worth focusing on the real issues of enterprise attention management – how to pull important messages forward and push less important messages back.  Even if you strip out the junk that gets incorrectly tossed in the “information overload”, like socializing and bad management practices and distractions, there is still enough real inefficiency left that can be addressed.  Leave the crackdown on time-wasting distractions, socialization, and general corporate inefficiencies to the culture police – I don’t want any part of that.


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