WSJ Offers Information Overload 101 Again

May 22, 2009 at 8:16 am | Posted in Attention Management, Information Work, interruption science | 1 Comment

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?

1 Comment »

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  1. Thanks, Craig! I blogged a response at

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