Wall St. Journal Provides Quick Attention Management Primer

July 6, 2009 at 8:41 am | Posted in Attention Management, Google | Leave a comment

L. Gordon Crovitz provides an attention management primer in today’s WSJ.  “Information Overload? Relax” is worth reading or pointing others too as a quick summary of information overload, the idea of managing it, and attention.  Best quote:

Rather than pitch our BlackBerrys and iPhones into the sea, imagine the benefits once we have figured out how to manage the chaos of endless data and routine multitasking, a process that will help refine our judgment about information and refocus our attention on what’s truly important.

Mr. Crovitz describes both ends of the information overload spectrum.  I wrote about this previously, saying “There’s no ‘right’ answer in the debate between those that believe information overload will soon cause the heads of information workers will begin to pop like popcorn as they slump over in their fuzzy cubicles and those that believe we’re just adapting to the new flow.”  Mr. Crovitz comes down 100% on the “we’ll adapt” side of the spectrum in this article, but I believe it’s a rhetorical device since he has generally been on the “it’s a crisis” side of the spectrum in previous columns on this subject.

The only minor quibble I have with his article is where he says:

As one data point, a search for “Information Overload” on Google returns 2.92 million results in 0.37 second.

No, actually, if you search on “information overload” with quotes around it Google returns 1.53 million results.  He searched on information overload without quotes which returns anything with those two words close together.  As you can see in the figure below, the noise he’s including in the search results involves iron overload (hemochromatosis), a serious but rather separate issue.  Granted, 1.53 million is still a lot, but using the tool properly trims almost 50% of the noise from the result set. 

GoogleQuotes

The built-in irony of that meta-mistake is brilliant.  Mr. Crovitz misuses a tool that is, itself, a symbol of the overabundance of information at our fingertips – while searching for the term that names that overabundance!  I don’t mean to pound on Mr. Crovitz – I wish to use this instance to demonstrate a point: that while technology cannot solve information overload, it can be part of the solution.  Before getting into fancy R&D projects and algorithms that try to formulate probabilistic estimates of which news items may be of interest or how to automagically prioritize your inbox, people should learn to use the basic features that already exist.  If information overload bothers you, it’s worth the effort to learn basic attentional features of the tools you use.  By “attentional” I mean how they can help you pull important information forward and push less important information back from the reader’s point of focus.  Quotes around words that are only of interest when together is just one example.

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