Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Information Overload

Wall Street Journal contributor Gordon Crovitz, writing about the dangers of information overload, points out that knowledge workers change activities every three minutes, usually because they're distracted by email or a phone call. It then takes almost half an hour to get back to the task once attention is lost.

A decline in our ability to focus is a side effect of the otherwise powerful tools we use to gather and analyze information, Crovitz argues. That has enterprises experimenting with ways to limit interruptions, at least some days of the week, and at meetings.

He argues that "we humans can be slow, but eventually we catch up to the technologies we create and figure out how best to use them."

I have something of an advantage in that regard, as I have very little need for active internal collaboration. I have to spend lots of time doing research, but very little time coordinating with coworkers.

Still, upon reflection, I have taken some steps to limit interruptions. Sometimes I just turn my phones off. For perhaps six months, I have not opened any instant messaging clients, for any reason other than to place a global call using Skype. Even that function, though, now can be dispensed with as I have added VoIP clients for both my mobiles.

That won't be a viable option for lots of other workers for whom internal collaboration is much more important. Still, one reasonable response is simply not to respond to every inbound email. In my case, I simply delete most messages without reading much more than the headers, or sometimes, on my BlackBerry, fractions of headers. On the BlackBerry, just the few characters displayed on the first line of any message is as far as I'll get.

Perhaps that is a severe sorting mechanism, but it does allow for the time I need to think about things, which is the job I have. Overload might be a problem, but it is not a problem without a resolution.

In my particular case, it means RSS feeds always get checked, all day long. So are text messages. Email is fairly often checked, but with very heavy deletion policies. At least for the moment, IMs are not an issue. It simply is a tool I have decided not to use. Again, my concrete situation is different than that of most enterprise users. IM might actually save time in that scenario, because of the presence function.

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