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Trouble Finding Time to Complete Tasks? Take a Deep Breath…

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012 by Jonathan Spira

Breath and go to your happy place...

A knowledge worker’s effectiveness depends on completing assignments. Sometimes, work just gets in the way of getting things done.

I’ve been thinking a lot about work. Specifically, what I’ve been contemplating is an increasing inability to spend substantive time writing during the day.

Perhaps it’s indicative of the problem that I am writing this at 10 p.m. Monday evening. I thought about starting to write this several times during the day, but work got in the way.

Of course, for me, writing is my work, so what happened? It isn’t writer’s block; indeed, I have plenty to say (and write).

Let’s look at when I was, and was not, productive for a moment. Over the weekend, I was able to spend a total of six or so relatively quiet hours writing. I finished three articles.

It’s not that I was constantly being interrupted during the workdays of the previous week. Today, with the prevalence of e-mail, my phone rings only once or twice a day.

During the normal workday, the typical nine-to-five, I find that many people are exchanging information and messages in an automaton-like fashion. They equate volume with a depth of understanding, facts with knowledge. They are deluding themselves.

Looking at the world in this fashion is not only misguided but wrong. But I digress.

Our jobs are not to move mounds of information from one pile to another. As knowledge workers, it is our job to digest information and extract a kind of wisdom from it.

Nonetheless, it’s possible to get caught up with my fellow automatons that are out there pushing out information and the day is over before you know it.

Even though I’ve cut back tremendously on my sources of information, I still find that my curiosity gets the best of me. There are so many things to be curious about and so much is available with the tap of a few keys that one can get lost in an abyss without even trying.

A few years ago, I scaled back from two 22” LCD monitors to the single 13” display built into my laptop. I thought I was being far more efficient and effective with wall-to-wall information but I was fooling myself. Instead, I was giving myself more ways to succumb to distraction.

Last year, I cut back on my news intake – and found that the absence of a constant barrage of small bits of news I really didn’t need gave me back the ability to concentrate more effectively.

This year, I find myself fighting to regain more time for thought and reflection. Alert readers will recall that we found that only 5% of the day is typically available to a knowledge worker for thinking and reflecting. That isn’t nearly enough time for a workforce that, essentially, thinks for a living.

What I am starting to see work for me is practicing deep breathing techniques. By doing so, I basically turn off all of my thoughts (it was a struggle at first but eventually it will happen to you too) and focus on my breathing. I feel more relaxed and more focused afterwards, and the result for me was a productive weekend of writing.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

Warning: The Cloud Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

Saturday, June 30th, 2012 by Jonathan Spira

This is not the first time I am writing this column.

Cloudy forecast for cloud computing?

While I last tackled the topic of Amazon’s outages some 14 months ago, when Amazon’s cloud-based data center service went down in a big way, Amazon has had several more highly-publicized outages, most recenty in April and in the middle of June.

These outages impact businesses and consumers alike.  Home movie fans who tried to use Netflix last Friday were disappointed.  Instagram users were in shock because they couldn’t share photos.  And Amazon has thousands of other customers, many of whom found themselves in the same boat.

This time, the problems were caused by the severe East Coast storms that left over two million people without power, but the cause doesn’t matter.  It’s the lack of preparedness for dealing with storms and outages that worries me.

If you’re thinking, “oh, but this is in the cloud,” I have some news for you.  The cloud has to have an earthly connection somewhere and redundancy doesn’t seem to be Amazon’s strong suit (or that of its customers).  The failure occurred at an Amazon location in Virginia, and that’s where many of these companies had their data.  They didn’t seem to think it made sense to put it in a second place, perhaps for safe keeping or in case a storm blew in and knocked one location off line.

Amazon did do a good job of updating its status messages with somewhat terse language (example: we are “investigating elevated error rates impacting a limited number” of customers) but that didn’t bring the data center back online any faster.

The problems weren’t over Saturday morning although the company said that some of its servers and services were back online.  ”We are continuing our recovery efforts for the remaining EC2 instances,” the company posted shortly before noon.

If you were an Amazon customer, these messages were all you would get.  Presumably your websites were offline as were any services, so you had to hope that Twitter wasn’t using Amazon’s cloud in Virginia that day as that’s how many Amazon customers were telling their own customers about the outage.

The point of my bringing this up is simple and something I’ve said before, numerous times: more and more data storage and processing have been off-loaded into the cloud without the appropriate precautions being taken to ensure data accessibility and redundancy.

I’m sure that we’ll see people questioning the viability of cloud-based services and storage because of this occurrence – but taking steps to ensure that a single outage doesn’t take thousands of companies down in one fell swoop seems to be quickly forgotten until the next time it happens.

It’s not up to Amazon. If you’re an Amazon customer, you’re clearly on your own – and you need to be working on a plan to ensure uptime.  If not, your customers will, by going somewhere else.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

Is Information Overload Yesterday’s News?

Monday, June 18th, 2012 by Jonathan Spira
London Gazette

No more headlines for Information Overload?

Information Overload continues to be a costly problem but it also appears to be losing some degree of mindshare.

This is not completely unexpected.  Many such areas – knowledge management comes to mind – go through phases.  At some point, knowledge management was viewed as the savior of the Information Age and at another point, it was seen more as a pariah.

Google Insights, a new tool currently in beta, helped shed some light on where we stand with Information Overload today.

Following a pattern set forth by Thomas Kuhn (albeit for a paradigm shift, not a technology trend) in his groundbreaking work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a revolution occurs in which an anomaly cannot be explained by current theories and the current worldview.  This throws the world into a form of crisis and turmoil and an intellectual battle occurs between the adherents of the old paradigm and the proponents of the new one.

Eventually, the new worldview takes hold.  Kuhn also maintained that the proponents of the new paradigm cannot be those who were adherents of the old one. They simply had to die out and, once that occurred, a new paradigm was firmly in place and the crisis was over.

(A good example of this is the period of turmoil in science as the Einsteinian Relativistic worldview supplanted the Maxwellian electromagnetic paradigm.)

Is a scientific revolution afoot in the world of Information Overload?  That is something that can only be determined in hindsight and not while in the midst of the transition, but there are a few signs that something is changing dramatically.

One way of looking at a worldview on a particular topic today is by analyzing search queries.  In particular, Google’s new Insights search analysis tool provides a visual representation of regional and worldwide interest in a particular search term.  Google Insights shows the relative number of searches on a query, with the number normalized and scaled to a value from 0-100.  It is important to note here that the tool does not provide the exact number of searches, just the relative number.

When I applied Google Insights to the term “Information Overload,” I found something rather unexpected.

Despite the abundance of news articles, books, and technology solutions addressing the problem, the general public’s interest in Information Overload has steadily been in decline since at least 2004 (the first year for which data in Google’s Insights is available).  In 2004, the relative search number for Information Overload was 100 on a 0-100 scale.  The number of searches declined steadily from 2004 to June of 2006, when the search rate leveled out at 20, where it roughly remains today.

A small side note here; if you look in Google Insights for Information Overload without quotes, the top search term that it finds is actually “overload of information.”  When quotes are used (“Information Overload”), the top search becomes “internet information overload” and “definition information overload.”

Globally, Australia is the country most concerned with the problem and leads with the highest search rate at 100, with the U.S. (81), and the U.K. (78) following.  Germany (number seven on the list) seems very unconcerned, with a search rate of only 31.  Within the U.S., Maryland (search rate of 100), the District of Columbia (90), and Washington State (88) are the top three locales where people have  searched on the term Information Overload.  However, when broken down by city, New York is by far the largest source of searches on Information Overload with a search rate of 100.

Contrast this with a trend that has recently garnered much attention, “Big Data.”  If you use the Insights tool to search for both Information Overload and Big Data (in separate searches), things really start to get interesting.

Big Data had been seemingly absent from search queries (hovering at a relative score of roughly three) until around September 2010.  At that point, Big Data jumped from five to 38 by the end of 2011.  Big Data’s search rate continues to grow and currently sits at 100 while Information Overload’s rate has remained essentially unchanged since the spring of 2007, hovering between 20 and 30.

While Google’s Insights tool gives us interesting data, it is limited to presenting relative search queries, not exact search numbers, making any direct comparison difficult.  What is clear is that Big Data is a term that has rapidly gained mindshare over the last few years, while Information Overload has somewhat fallen out of favor.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

Music: The Great Distraction?

Friday, June 1st, 2012 by Jonathan Spira
Vienne State Opera

Is even the Vienna State Opera a distraction?

Recently, I noticed more and more knowledge workers wearing headsets while at their desks. Not just earbuds, but noise-cancelling headsets, the kind you’d expect to see on an airplane (indeed, Bose invented the noise-cancelling headset over 20 years ago specifically for use by pilots).

While some people are simply using the active (or in some cases passive) noise-cancelling feature, most are listening to music.

What choice they make in music will unquestionably impact their productivity.

Years ago, when we planned the first Basex office space large enough to require a PA system and speakers, we also installed a CD-changer (these were pre-MP3 days), which played music in the background.

The type of music was subject to great debate but I insisted on music without any lyrics and without any particularly distracting beat. This translated into classical and jazz and, to be honest, was not a popular decision in the office.

But I had my reasons, the primary one being that listening to music with lyrics is a distraction. We had yet to start our research on distractions and interruptions (the timeframe I am writing about is ca. 1996) but, to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, I know a distraction when I see it.

We actually did some informal tests by playing music from various radio stations and I quizzed some of my colleagues after different types of music had been playing. What I found was quite revealing: favorite songs pretty much caused work to stop, DJ chatter slowed things down, and classical music was soothing.

This is because the lyrics or banter were essentially overloading the brain and it had to work overtime to keep the focus on work versus the music (this is an activity that takes place in the brain’s prefrontal cortex). As we have learnt since then, distractions take a significant toll on workplace productivity and each interruption comes with the penalty of what I named “recovery time,” i.e. the time it takes the knowledge worker to return to the task at hand after the interruption. (For an in-depth discussion of recovery time, the reader is referred to Information Overload – Is there a silver bullet?)

Recently, I read of several studies that took place in Japan on the topic. One linked music with lyrics to lower levels of concentration. Another found that workers without strong feelings about music found music less distracting than those who either really liked or disliked it. A third study, this time in the U.S., found that listening to hip-hop music resulted in a significant reduction of reading-test scores.

So back to the original topic of headphones for a moment. While having a choice in music may be something workers today feel is an entitlement – after all, thanks to the Internet, when it comes to music, the world is your oyster – there may be a significant downside when it comes to productivity depending on what each individual chooses to listen to. (In the interest of fairness, there may be an upside as well but that is beyond the scope of this analysis in which I am focusing on how certain types of music can overtax the brain while knowledge workers are attempting to work.)

As for me, I listen to Radio Swiss Classic on the Internet. Since it’s an Internet-only radio station (run by a major broadcaster, SRG SSR idée Suisse), there are no commercials and no news reports, just a very brief announcement with details on the work being played.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

In the Knowledge Economy, E-mail Continues to Be Front and Center

Friday, May 18th, 2012 by Cody Burke

Up, up, and away?

Just this morning I had a conversation with an executive at a major U.S. bank. She was deploring the fact that all employees had been told that their e-mail databases would be limited to the past six months of messages and that they could go through the older e-mail messages and save specific ones to files if they so desired.

I first wrote about Deleting E-mail, Deleting Knowledge over ten years ago, bemoaning the existence of arbitrary e-mail policies while emphasizing the need to make the knowledge contained in e-mail messages more available, not less.

Clearly, a decade later, some haven’t gotten the message. Frankly, I’m not sure why. Hard drives are bigger, storage is cheaper by several orders of magnitude, and we are using e-mail more than ever as a means of creating, distributing, and storing information.

Combine this with another e-mail problem: non-delivery of e-mail. I’m not talking about an outright delivery failure where the sender is notified. I’m referring to e-mail messages that just disappear.

Recently I had this happen twice, when I dispatched e-mail to colleagues and awaited a reply. From one, I received a phone call and from the other, an e-mail, both plaintively asking when I was going to send my e-mail.

In both cases, I sent a few test e-mail messages and none was received.

I referred both to their respective IT departments and, voilà, the problem was fixed.

In Fixing E-mail, I wrote about the problem that users face after sending an e-mail, namely that it is not really possible to track when the sender does not get a reply from the recipient. When I wrote this, I didn’t contemplate a situation where the e-mail simply disappeared into the ether. But, as I’ve discovered, not getting a reply to an e-mail can indeed be indicative of the fact that the e-mail never reached the intended recipient in the first place.

This is where it gets tricky. We can’t ask each recipient to confirm receipt of a message, nor can we call each recipient and say, “Hey, did you just get my e-mail?”. Knowledge workers are already busy with the e-mail already in their inbox (at the rate of 93 e-mail messages per day, which is what the average knowledge worker receives, this is over 22,000 e-mail messages a year and that number is growing).

So what do I see as potential solutions? On the deletion front, recognizing the value of the knowledge stored in older e-mail by changing policies would be a good first step. On the problem of disappearing e-mail as well as tracking whether a reply to a particular e-mail has been forthcoming, hopefully someone reading this can come up with a tool that will help resolve the issue.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex. He can be reached at jspira@basex.com

Information Overload: Do As I Say, Not As I Do?

Friday, May 11th, 2012 by Jonathan Spira

Too much e-mail or just enough?

“I don’t really spend that much time on e-mail…” “E-mail sometimes overwhelms my day.”

These two perspectives sound as if they represent two polar extremes in the knowledge workforce, but they actually are coming from the same people.

In a series of surveys and interviews by Basex, over the past year, we found some interesting trends in how knowledge workers are impacted by Information Overload, and what they are doing about it.

But we also found that what the survey respondents tell us in surveys is directly contradicted by what the same people tell us in telephone interviews.

After conducting a series of surveys that reached a total of 1000 knowledge workers at a large North American company, we would like to share with you some initial analysis, as well as out thoughts on some contradictory data we received.

From our surveys, we found that knowledge workers at the company were spending a relatively low amount of time reading, writing, and managing e-mail messages. Specifically, around 50% spent 15-30 minutes reading e-mail and 15-30 minutes writing e-mail. Around 65% also spent 15-30 minutes managing their inboxes. We took the low numbers to be a positive sign in that it didn’t indicate an e-mail-obsessed work culture. Additionally, when specifically asked about sources of Information Overload, very low numbers of respondents felt e-mail was a significant problem.

Surveys are typically one of several parts of our research process, in this case the second part. It was when we got to the third part, one-on-one interviews, that alarm bells started sounding.

Interviewees consistently reported rampant overuse of e-mail in the form of excessive cc’ing and bcc’ing. In addition, the use of attachments in e-mail messages in lieu of using one of the company’s document management platforms was a clear problem.

The contradiction between what knowledge workers reported in the survey and what they said in interviews is intriguing, and may simply be a function of the format. When filling out a survey, answers must fit into the rigid format of the survey, without room for nuance. In an interview, there is more room for conversation that allows for ideas to be expanded.

Knowledge workers were also asked to tell us what methods they used to deal with Information Overload. The top three responses were all very personal actions, meaning actions taken on a personal level that do not necessarily extend to teams or work groups.

The following were the top three techniques that survey respondents reported using when dealing with Information Overload:
1.) Focusing on work and limiting self-interruptions (84.5%).
2.) Use of productivity and time management systems (33.4%).
3.) Using better search techniques (33.1%).
While all three selections are valid ways to address Information Overload, the problem is that some of the most effective methods are more group-based. Those techniques were selected by low numbers of respondents

For example, indicating one’s up-to-date presence information via instant messenger has been found to be an effective way to minimize interruptions when adopted on an organizational level, yet only 14.7% of respondents reported using that technique. Additionally, turning off e-mail notifications is a highly effective method of focusing on work and not constantly checking one’s inbox; however for employees to feel comfortable in doing this, there must be a top-down understanding of expected e-mail response times. Only 12.3% of respondents indicated that they turn off e-mail notifications.

It’s clear that the knowledge workers at this company suffer greatly from Information Overload-related issues. What’s compelling about our findings here is that it’s clear that surveys without significant follow-up via interviews can result in significant underreporting of the problem.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex. He can be reached at jspira@basex.com

Big Data, Big Problems, The Next Big Thing?

Friday, May 4th, 2012 by Jonathan Spira

So much data to think about...

Slowly but surely, the corporate world is beginning to realize that the amount of information and data it generates is digging the enterprise into a hole.

It’s no surprise that the buzzword for 2012 is “Big Data,” a nebulous term that attempts to define parameters for mammoth stores of data that have become seemingly unmanageable with traditional tools.

We keep building systems that generate voluminous data. These systems include everything from information posted on social media sites, climatological information, digital images (think of the number of camera-equipped smartphones out there today), sales transactions, the list goes on and on.

Between people and machines, over 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created daily (a quintillion is a one followed by 18 zeroes, just in case you weren’t sure).

If you check Wikipedia, you’ll learn that Big Data “consists of data sets that grow so large that they become awkward to work with using on-hand database management tools.”

Put more clearly, it’s too much of a good thing and the tools that we have simply aren’t up to the task. However, it seems that potential solutions are cropping up everywhere as is the effort to get the word out on Big Data.

You may not be aware but this is Big Data Week. If you didn’t know, you’re not alone.

Perhaps in anticipation of the festivities, Splunk, a company that offers such solutions and promises to help companies organize, listen to, and make sense of all of the information they have, rose 109% in value on its first day of trading after its IPO last week.

Also last week, perhaps as part of its ramp-up to celebrate Big Data Week, IBM announced plans to acquire Vivisimo, a search company that focuses on the federated discovery of structured and unstructured information.

The funny thing is that Big Data sounds a lot like other ideas and buzzwords we’ve seen come and go over the years. It’s closest to business intelligence and knowledge management but it promises to let you use all of your data, all the time, instead of just a sampling.

Big Data isn’t necessarily a solution, nor is having access to all of your information. Roughly a dozen years ago, the military ran tests of its Force XXI, a tool that would support complete battlefield tracking. What the military didn’t count on was the amount of Information Overload that would result from a system that provides “exquisite situational awareness.” Having more data didn’t do very much for the big brass. It was simply too much to swallow.

Around the same time, I wrote in this space about the problem that knowledge management had (and still has at this time), namely the fact that KM “doesn’t get much play in the general business press, much less attention by CEOs of major multinationals.”

I used Siemens’ CEO Heinrich von Pierer as an example of one of the few who actually did pay attention to KM, something that didn’t surprise me. Indeed, Werner Maly, a member of the Siemens management board, mentioned, in an address at a forum on Idea Management in 1998 in Frankfurt what he explained was not a new saying at Siemens: “If Siemens only knew what Siemens knew.” In a company with 60,000 engineers and scientists, the knowledge and know-how had to be somewhere. Maly asked, point blank: “How do we succeed in connecting that together?”

This is, ladies and gentlemen, what Big Data hopes to accomplish. Of course, it may succeed, but it may also take its place in a long line of attempts to connect knowledge, know-how, and information, an admirable but rather elusive goal.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

Information Overload – Is there a silver bullet?

Friday, April 27th, 2012 by Jonathan Spira

A little help please...

There is really one key driver of all of the costs of Information Overload and that’s the phenomenon I discovered early on in my research and which I named Recovery Time.

Recovery Time is the time it takes you to get back to where you were prior to an interruption. I’ve calculated it as being 10-20 times the duration of the interruption so, if you interrupt me for 30 seconds, the recovery time is likely to be 5 minutes or longer.

Take a typical knowledge worker who is interrupted five times in the course of a day. With each interruption lasting on average one minute (some were shorter and some were longer), this knowledge worker will lose an hour at the very least and, more likely, an hour and forty minutes. This translates into as much as $43. Per person. Per day.

Now take the typical 5,000-person division or company and multiply $43 by 5,000. That ($215,000) is the cost of Recovery Time each and every workday at that company.

Recovery Time is the key contributor to the large cost of Information Overload ($997 billion p.a. to the U.S. economy in 2010 according to Basex). Understanding it may very well be the silver bullet we have all been looking for.

Of course, there is some good news in this: every interruption we eliminate has the potential of saving significant amounts of time and money.

For example, for every 100 people we unnecessarily cc on an e-mail, we lose eight manhours as they deal with it in their inbox. Even when spread out over only 100 knowledge workers, the total time is still the same as an entire workday.

All we have to do is start to eliminate a few interruptions each day and we will quickly see positive results.

You might wonder what kind of interruptions I am talking about. They run the gamut from self-interruption (an uncontrollable urge to look at an eBay auction or check whether any new e-mail messages have arrived) to someone knocking at your door or, if you are at home, ringing the bell (with apologies to Paul McCartney and Wings), or someone sending you an e-mail (interruption nr. 1) and two minutes later calling to see if you had received it.

Much of our newfound impatience comes from a society that, in the past three decades, has become increasingly accustomed to instant gratification and therefore cannot wait more than a few minutes to get a reply. In addition, newer workers enter the workforce with a sense of entitlement that is somewhat oversized, in large part due to new parenting and child-rearing techniques that have always put the child first.

We’ll look at that next time.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

Getting Wise: How is Wisdom Really Acquired?

Friday, April 20th, 2012 by Cody Burke

How to wise up?

In my book Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization, I wrote that the three trickiest words in the English language may very well be “information,” “knowledge,” and “wisdom.”

To say that their meanings, as well as the concepts behind them, overlap is a gross understatement.

With respect to the word “wisdom,” I’ve long sought a better understanding of its meaning. The explanation David Goldes and I developed for wisdom over a decade ago was that it was “knowledge with human interpretation added.”

It has long been a stereotype of wisdom that it is something one accumulates as one gets older. A study two years ago by Igor Grossmann at the University of Waterloo suggested as much. He found that older Americans were wiser than younger ones. A new study by Grossmann, recently published in the journal Psychological Science, follows Grossmann’s investigations in this area in Asia, specifically Japan.

What Grossmann found in Japan is that younger people were almost as wise as their elders.

Grossmann contrasted tests performed on 186 Japanese and 225 Americans. The tests included reading a series of (fictional) newspaper articles, half of which described conflicts between different interest groups (local residents versus a large foreign corporation, for example). The remaining articles were make-believe advice columns where the questions concerned conflict amongst people (such as with one’s spouse, relative, friend, boss, etc.).

Each participant in the study was asked “What do you think will happen after that?” and “Why do you think it will happen this way?”

The responses were analyzed using the five crucial aspects of wise reasoning: namely, a willingness to seek opportunities to resolve conflict; a willingness to search for compromise; the recognition of the limits of personal knowledge; an awareness that more than one perspective on a problem can exist; and the appreciation of the fact that things may get worse before they get better.

Scoring ranged from one to three where one indicated that no consideration was given to the problem in the answer and three indicated a great deal of consideration.

Using a scale from 0 to 100, Dr. Grossmann and his team found that the average intergroup wisdom score at age 25 was 45 and at 75, it was 55. The interpersonal score was 46 at 25 and 50 at 75.

Reading Grossmann’s study didn’t help me refine my definition of wisdom but it was enlightening to see the difference in scores in two very different societies. While his numbers suggest that, at least in Japan, wisdom is not connected to age, it is only one study, albeit a very interesting one.

The fact that wisdom continues to be the source of scientific enquiry, however, does give me hope that we’ll improve our understanding of knowledge and wisdom in this age of Information Overload. As for me, I continue to optimistically assume that I get wiser each and every day, except on those trips I make to Japan every so often.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

Is Getting More Free Time As Easy as Withdrawing Money from an Automated Teller Machine?

Friday, April 13th, 2012 by Jonathan Spira

I will use my new free time to go for a walk. Thanks Microsoft!

As part of a publicity stunt for its 4G LTE Windows Phones, Microsoft set up Free-Time Machines (FTMs) across the country.

What exactly is an FTM, I hear you all cry?

Similar to ATMs, the FTMs essentially dispense free time in the form of free grocery deliveries, cleaning and dog-walking services, or support from a personal concierge to random users. A few select FTM users will win a new Windows Phone.

This is being done to emphasize how using a Windows Phone creates, well, more free time.

I had to double-check the date of the news release. Indeed, it was April 9, not April 1 – but you can draw your own conclusions just from the very fact that I had to check.

To underscore the point (if such a thing were possible), the FTMs were staffed by Free-Time Engineers who’d do anything from standing in line for food or theater tickets, or delivering a meal.

The machines were located in New York at Bryant Park and Madison Square Park, in Chicago at John Hancock Plaza and Pioneer Court, and in San Francisco at Union Square.

Microsoft also engaged a few celebrities for this promotion, the purpose being to show how a smartphone (at least for the given celebrity, none of whom I had ever heard of) makes things “fast and easy” thereby saving time, helps you “stay on top of your game” (this was for a sports-related celebrity), and keeps you “connected” to your business (and to your fans, if you happen to have any).

The paradox here is that any phone – including a Windows Phone – is unlikely to have a positive impact on your free time. A well-designed smartphone can allow you to accomplish things you might have otherwise had to do in a less-efficient manner, but so far I truly haven’t come across one that actually gives me free time. If anything, I find that smartphones typically open up a Pandora’s box full of potential time-wasting activities that more than counter any gains I might see. Of course, if Microsoft would add a free time deposit option to their shiny new FTMs, we could surely find a way to withdraw that valuable free time when needed.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.