Notes From Information Overload Awareness Day

August 12, 2009 at 8:11 pm | Posted in Attention Management, Information Work | 1 Comment

I tuned into today’s presentations for Information Overload Awareness Day and, despite dreading a rehash of “information overload 101” with lots of guru-tense (what “we” are doing to “ourselves”) and e-etiquette and productivity tips, there was quite a lot of good information there.  Here are my quick notes for those who didn’t sit through all 5 hours (!).  They are strongly biased by my views, which had me looking for material that had to do with organizations, a systemic approach (rather than grass-roots, individual tips), and real solutions.

I’ve heard Jonathan Spira speak a few times before, and Ifeel he did a better job this time of acknowledging the sophistication of the audience.  In fact, he started out by saying “I’m preaching to the choir here”, which is indeed one of the problems with all information overload books and presentations.  They cater to the converted and are mostly about confirming what they already believe or teaching them how to proselytize others.  He also agreed that a lot of this is common sense.  I was happy to hear him mention the value of focusing on systemic fixes and note that only a fraction of the total “information overload” estimate is recoverable (he said 10-20% in the first year).  He was a bit rushed due to technical difficulties though.  Handy hint to all speakers: your audience wants to hear you talk, not see the slides.  Sure, they want them for later reference, but few listeners will be disappointed if you say you’re going to go ahead and talk without PowerPoint!  If the projector isn’t working or the computer crashes or the web conferencing isn’t working, they’d much rather hear you talk than wait 25 minutes for the slides to be ready.

Nathan Zeldes’ presentation was the best.  When we talked last year we agreed to disagree on some aspects of information overload (such as whether it’s OK to lump distractions into interruptions.  Oh, and of course whether I should get to speak at an IORG event on a more moderate assessment of the problem!).  But his presentation hit on many of the points I find to be of more value for enterprise listeners on this subject: focusing on large organizations rather than individuals, the idea that everyone complains but nobody does anything about IO.  Some of his solutions I liked (software tools, training drives – if teachable moments can be exploited).  Some I didn’t: group contracts (e-mail free Fridays), evangelizing to senior management.

I wasn’t too fond of the Maggie Jackson presentation.  She’s a very good presenter and her book (“Distraction”) is doing great, but the overwhelming use of guru-tense turned me off.  If she said “we” and “our” less than 100 times I’d be surprised.  I like to make up my own mind, not be told what I and everyone around me is doing.  There was lots of the usual IO setup: the value system of the Western world, our 24/7 gadgets, why we can barely keep our inboxes under control, etc.  At the end though she hit on the science of attention as the “root of how you deal with this environment”.  That does hit on the approach I think yields the most workable solutions and I wish the whole presentation was on that. 

Christina Randle of The Effective Edge talked about info-stress.  I agree with the idea that not closing off work threads causes stress through mental juggling.  But this is not “caused by overload”.  My worst experiences with waking up in the night with work thoughts running through my head were when I was project manager for a single project and it was the frustration and complexity that caused it, not too much information.  Also, she falls into the common trap of using the 3-7 items in memory research that actually relates only to very disconnected phrases. 

Ed Stern of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, U.S. Department of Labor, talked about expert systems to help sort through information (i.e., asbestos codes for OSHA).  Neat – I did my master’s thesis on this topic for interpreting collections data at a credit card company, but he got this off the ground in a much bigger way.

Mark Hurst of Creative Good described a Buddhist approach – the zero inbox.  “In this digital age we have to let things go to achieve happiness.”  Great – one hand clapping for you Mr. Hurst.

Ken Sickles of Dow Jones brought up business performance as an IO problem.  Very good point – and I’ve always said it’s the only one I’d try making to management unless you know they feel like being preached to.

Seth Earley talked about search disambiguation and faceted search.  Yes, they do help cut through all the information out there, although it’s only one part of the problem. 

So there’s my summary of the day.  I still would put much more emphasis on solutions than problems, cut 90% of the repetition of the basic IO spiel (or add a second “201” session.  Jonathan: give me a call as this is what I focus on and I’m happy to help!), eliminate the evangelism and guru-speak to appeal to people whether they drink the IO kool-aid or not, and put more emphasis on attention.


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  1. Hey, thanks for the compliment, Craig! I agree our thinking has much in common (and some that isn’t, enough to make for an interesting dialog!)

    Glad you liked “some of my solutions” – only they weren’t “mine”; I was trying to show the great diversity of available solution types, not endorsing or claiming all of them as my own.

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