Jacob Ukelson of Actionbase recently had some good comments on my posting “Information Overload as Evolutionary Maladaptation“:
Clay Shirky’s take on it is that the information overload problem (at least as it pertains to email) is an email filtering problem, not an information overload problem. His video can be seen here:
I hadn’t seen that video before, so I watched it and think it’s very good. In particular, the parts that stuck with me from Clay’s presentation were:
- We’ve lost our filter for quality. It used to be book publishers. Not anymore. So how will we now design the filters (rather than thinking about how to control the flow of content from the source)?
- Solutions are temporary and need to be continually adapted
- He applied a great quote to information overload. It’s from Yitzak Rabin: “If you have the same problem for a long time, maybe it’s not a problem – it’s a fact.”
- When you think about information overload, think instead about what changed – where the filter broke
I think he’s half right with his thesis. Defining information overload as a filter issue captures half the problem according to my Enterprise Attention Management model. It captures the “pushing information back” (attention shielding) part, but not the “pulling information forward” part. Unless he means the filter is applied in both directions, which didn’t come out in this speech.
I’d like to lay claim to control over the Wall St. Journal’s editorial page, remarkable prescience, or the luck of the Irish. I’ll take any of those 3 I can get. My claim is based on my February 10th blog posting “Information Overload as Evolutionary Maladaptation” and a WSJ editorial just 2 days later by Daniel Akst’s called “The iPad Could Drive Readers to Distraction“. His article pretty much falls for every canard I warned about two days earlier, including the use of the exact same humorous caveman example.
Well, in case anyone thought I was putting words into hypothetical mouths on the 10th, Mr. Akst kindly decided to blatantly state the points I was disputing:
- Roth: “I’ve noticed much that’s written about information overload starts from an assumption that a root cause of the problem is with humankind …”
- Akst: “Distractibility, sad to say, is the human condition …”
- Roth: “… the argument being used [is] that the response of information workers to the proliferation of information is an evolutionary maladaptation …”
- Akst: “Distractibility … probably evolved at a time when … it was a survival adaptation. “
- Roth: ““Ugh, more information always good! May help me kill sabre tooth tiger or mate with woman!”
- Akst: “hey, is that a tiger?!”
My point was that I’d like to see more searching for creative solutions. Arguing that sometimes we can’t help checking email or browsing fun sites when we should be working is like shooting fish in a barrel. Of course that happens. But is that always or only the case? The “steely self-discipline” bandwagon is already full of bright people doing what they can to make a difference. Mr. Akst’s article demonstrates the over-worn path his argument leads down. I wrote that “If this is an example of humans being wired for self-destructive behavior, then it leads to lots of ‘protect you from yourself’ advice.” And sure enough, his article gives a quick survey of software to “bar yourself from the Internet” or programs to “prevent yourself from wasting half your work day surfing celebrity gossip blogs”.
But isn’t there more to this issue? Can’t questioning a few overly used assumptions yield some new avenues of exploration? If one assumes that information overload is within the realm of consciousness and under rational control, different solutions can apply. Take a favorite culprit: e-mail. Assuming e-mail overload is due to evolutionary maladaptation leads to half-jesting self-discipline solutions like Google’s “Take a break” feature. But if you get past that and consider that users can apply rational responses, you can find many tweaks that get beyond pop-psychology and have a chance of making a real difference (see my posting “E-mail Overload: No Cure, but Enterprise Attention Management Can Shed Some Light“).
All it takes is to stop blaming our cavemen ancestors and start blaming ourselves.
In a previous posting (“Solution for Broken IT: Fix It“) I decried a trend I’ve noticed towards businesses taking collaboration and content needs into their own hands (via end user computing, consultants, or SaaS) rather than attempting to fix the relationship with IT. One example I noted was with SharePoint, where I said “Microsoft is increasingly marketing SharePoint to the business with as the DIY option of choice.”
Well, Microsoft denies any formal program to market SharePoint directly to the business (doing an end run around IT). But business folks are indeed getting pelted with SharePoint messaging from somewhere. Where is it? Entrepreneurial local technical salespeople? Active user’s groups? Self-appointed internal SharePoint evangelists? I’m not sure, but I wish I had the time to put on a disguise (a fake moustache and trench coat would do), hang out in a corporate business unit for a while complaining about how I wish I had a better way to collaborate than shared drives, and then catch whoever pops out of the woodwork …
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.
Picture this situation: a businessperson on a plane checks her email inbox on her laptop and finally goes bonkers at how the emails keep piling up and never end. The constrained ability to move on the plane and similar lack of control over incoming email leads to a sudden desire to escape. A nearby passenger tries to shake this woman to her senses, but then another passenger wants to try too. Now, here comes a professional information overload pundit! The pundit comes over to shake her up and try to get her to snap out of it by realizing what “we” are doing to “ourselves” with this constant need to communicate. But then more pundits show up – a book author here, a consultant there, a blogger/columnist next – all trying to outdo themselves on how to shake this woman to her senses.
Well, you don’t need to picture this in your head. Just click on the link below for an accurate recreation of this event.
Yeah, it’s just like that. While they all seem to want to help, the sheer mass of them and desire to out-shake the last pundit makes them seem a bit too gleeful for the opportunity to slap her around. It’s not tough to slap someone around on information overload – most people are guilty of poor attention management processes and most people feel info-stress from time to time. It turns out, it’s so easy to slap people around on information overload that it’s actually fun – even cathartic! If only her seatmate would have tried to talk to her instead of slapping her down, this might have ended better …
“Not So Fast: Sending and receiving at breakneck speed can make life queasy; a manifesto for slow communication”, By John Freeman (WSJ 8/22/09 p W3), is yet another “shake you to your senses” information overload 101 article. I found it noteworthy because it explicitly defines itself as a manifesto, two years after I explicitly noted that getting away from manifestos is what is needed to make the best of the proliferation of information and content while minimizing its worst effects on businesses and workers. (Note: I avoided guru-tense and didn’t word that as “while minimizing the disastrous impact this is having on us and our ability to think and reason …”).
I will read the book because it’s my job to read these things, but there’s no need to wait since a good book already exists on the need to slow down: “In Praise of Slowness”, by Carl Honore (my review is here).
Here is the comment I entered to the article on WSJ.com:
This is a very good information overload primer – particularly the parts about making conscious decisions about where the “finite well of our attention” is focused. But what Mr. Freeman has done is provide a manifesto at precisely the time that the opposite is needed: for all the information overload pundits to put the evangelism aside and focus on a path to improvement that embraces both sides of this debate.
Getting heads nodding by describing what “we” are doing to “ourselves” (always in guru-tense) is easy. Nomiki (who has commented a few times here) shows that not everyone should be included in that “we” as some have learned to adapt their expectations and tool usage to minimize their info-stress while not demonizing or sacrificing what the information age has to offer.
After my first year of covering information overload I recognized that the evangelical aspect of the narrative that “Not So Fast” follows is counterproductive. In fact, Mr. Freeman’s manifesto was published two years (give or take a week) after I published my “Manifesto-free definition of attention management”.
An excerpt: “The debate is over whether we are at a tipping point that necessitates a radical change in approach – an ‘information intervention’ – or just seeing an incremental but manageable increase in information velocity. Those who argue it is an incremental increase often disregard the rest of attention management as the result of unwarranted alarmist thinking.
That’s unfortunate because this emerging field has a lot to offer regardless of whether one believes that we are at a hand-wringing crisis moment or not … What is needed, then, is a manifesto-free definition of attention management. One that doesn’t require purchase of a belief system to understand.”
For those interested in a manifesto-free approach to this situation:
Note: This is a cross-posting from the Collaboration and Content Strategies blog.
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 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.