The Siren’s Call of Information Overload

Once again, information overload and attention management are front-page news. Matt Richtel at the New York Times wrote yet another piece on this topic that appeared earlier this week in the New York Times (in the interest of full disclosure, Matt interviewed me for background information as he was preparing the piece).

Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten...

Matt’s written on this subject many times before so I wasn’t surprised that he was working on this. Unfortunately, while he found some great examples of information-overload casualties, the trends and problems he examines in this 3500+ word piece were far from revolutionary. There are many more key points he could have addressed and focused on, and I will address a few here.

Indeed, the problem of information overload isn’t a new one but it is one that has been exacerbated by the fact that 1.) we have countless new gadgets and tools that deliver “information” and 2.) the rate of information creation has increased dramatically. As a result, in order to keep up, people attempt to multitask, something that our brains simply aren’t capable of handling with any degree of efficiency.

Instead of multitasking what we actually do is task switching which is really a series of continuous interruptions. While this is done in the belief that one is being more efficient and getting more done, nothing could be farther from the truth. Each interruption comes with a penalty.

In 2003 through 2005, Basex conducted research that led us to uncover the phenomenon of “recovery time,” the time it takes an individual to return to a task after he has been interrupted. Recovery time is generally imperceptible because the individual is not aware – even if he returns to the task – that he is struggling to get back to the point at which he was before the interruption.

Each time an individual switches tasks and tries to return to the previous task, he has to go back in time and recollect his thoughts and recall exactly what he has done and what he has yet to do. Some repetitive work may be involved as well, e.g. redoing the last few steps. This of course assumes that the individual returns at all – in some instances, the task is forgotten altogether. The interruptions also increase the likelihood of errors being committed.

When this happens over and over again (which is the case for most people during the workday), the ability to devote thought and reflection to a particular task – the hallmark of the knowledge worker – becomes nearly impossible. The human brain is curious and always seeking new information. As a result, external stimuli – the beeps and bleats of technology indicating a new message or call – are like the siren Loreley, the beautiful Rhine maiden who lured passing sailors to their doom with her singing and long, golden hair.

We found that recovery time is between 10 to 20 times the duration of the interruption. That means that a 30 second interruption can result in a minimum of 5 minutes of recovery time. Added together, unnecessary interruptions plus the related recovery time can consume as much as 28% of the workday and hundreds of billions of dollars in time.

Little has changed since then. If anything, we multitask more. But we can still tame the multitasking monster – it merely requires some discipline. In the coming weeks, we’ll look at ways to do just that.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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