Information overload or information over-consumption?

If we do not have time because of all the information we are consuming, then to be more effective we need to eliminate the information that simply consumes our time, but that we don't need to consume to do our job.

A woman looking stressed on the phone

In the knowledge economy many of us face an ever-growing amount of digital information in our lives. We get up in the morning, check our email, open an app to get the weather report, check the traffic online all before starting our journey to work. At work the barrage of information grows further, more email, reports to read, presentations to watch, spreadsheets to review, social media to keep in touch with. The problem then is not having the time to do your actual work.

If we break this problem down into its composite parts what do we find? There is information that we need to find and consume to do our jobs and there is information that simply consumes our time. This comes back to the famous quote about information:

The thing that information consumes is attention.

If we do not have time because of all the information we are consuming, then to be more effective we need to eliminate the information that simply consumes our time, but that we don't need to consume to do our job.

If we think about information like food for a moment: If we are driving from city A to city B we would not stop at every fast-food restaurant we see to buy a burger. If we did it would take us a very long time to reach our destination and we would be bloated compared to when we left. We have learnt as humans that we don't need to stop and eat at every restaurant, and we, for the most part, have the self-control to drive past. If we are actually hungry and have a need for food we stop and eat.

So why then can we not do the same with information? Stopping at every restaurant would have a financial cost to it whereas consuming information has no immediate financial cost. We are also used to having food all around us. Few people in the workplace in developed countries today can remember rationing or a time when food wasn't immediately available to buy. The information age is very new in comparison. The current generation of knowledge workers may have grown up with computers, but the exponential growth of knowledge is still a very recent development. So we have yet to learn how to deal with this.

There are social and cultural factors at play here too. In a collaborative, knowledge based company people are often very ready to share information, perhaps too ready to send an email, rather than figure it out for themselves or pick up the phone, or even talk face to face. For the individual sending an email is often an 'easy option' with a very low time cost for the sender. But if this email goes to say 5 people, who each have to read the email and reply to it, the overall time cost to the organization can be noticeable.

Possibly the worst use of email that occurs in some companies is the back-side covering email. This is the practice of CC'ing multiple people into an email informing them of something so that the sender can then excuse themselves from responsibility should something go wrong, or it is found to be a bad decision with the words "I CC'ed you in on the email, you should have raised your concerns / points / opinion / reality check then." There is something seriously wrong with a corporate culture for this to develop, but it is unfortunately all too frequent. The cost of the information consumption by people in the organization is very significant here because each email can become like a virtual banana skin for the recipients. Each person will feel the need to read (carefully) each email, think of the contents in respect to their own role and then respond.

Taking control of your appetitive

Just as with the fast food restaurants the ultimate responsibility for consumption belongs to the individual. We need to each take responsibility for the information we consume and the attention that we give it. But why does it seem so difficult to do sometimes?

Scientific studies have shown that when you get a 'good email' you have a burst endorphins, similar to if you do exercise, that make you feel good. The same studies showed that people would check their email in the hope of getting a 'good email' for that little rush and that it was this feeling that makes people react to the ping of a new email. People do this even though the proportion of 'good emails' that make them feel like this is very small. We are therefore battling physiological factors in our attempt to control our consumption of information.

There is a fear of missing out for some people in their consumption of information. This can be especially problematic on social media where people are drawn into conversations and threads that they have an interest in, but the participation serves us little in the way of 'real benefit.' People enter a social media site perhaps looking for a particular thing but information draws them sideways as they don't want to 'miss out' on related knowledge. One subject leads to another and without control they can find themselves spending a lot of time absorbing information.

How much information can we absorb?

The amount of information we can absorb is an interesting question. Do we have a finite level? Do we have an amount per hour? Do we get mind-bloat if we over-consume information? The research and experience tells us that it is likely our minds can only hold and process a certain amount of information, although that amount varies from individual to individual. Therefore if we fill our conscious brains with information that isn't important or relevant to our tasks, there is a negative impact on absorbing and using relevant information.

What information to consume?

As individual knowledge workers we need to actually now consciously think about what information we choose to consume. Our attention is valuable not just to our employer but to ourselves to get more done, to feel more fulfilled at work, to progress in our career by achieving more. The start of this process has to be deciding what information we can do without. So just like going on a diet we need to stop snacking between meals and eat more healthily. Our information diet needs to remove thing like those unnecessary visits to social media and stop going to that sports website when you are sitting drinking your morning coffee.

By a seeing information like food, something that you need to chose what to consume, you can have a healthier relationship with it. It does however take training and a conscious effort to un-train yourself of your current habits and form new ones. What of the harder problems to crack such as corporate email?

Dealing with Email

There are many, many different techniques touted as solutions to email overload. What everyone can do that is simple is switching off email for period of time when you are working on a specific task. Even better than this, don't open email until mid-morning as studies show that your most productive time of day is in the morning. Spending an hour 'clearing your in-box' first thing might make you feel good, but it is probably not the best use of your valuable thinking time.

Take your management of email further by talking to your colleagues about it. Here are some ways that your colleagues can help you managing your information consumption:

  • Suggest that they simply book a time that your shared calendar shows you are free than emailing you to ask when you want a meeting.
  • For those people who work in your building as them to only email you with questions if they cannot come and talk to you face-to-face (you'll be amazed at how the number of questions you get will reduce).
  • Where you collaborate in a group and they send 'group emails' as them to post all of the relevant information on the project space on the Intranet so you can access it when you need, and not include you on the update emails.
  • Tell your team members who report to you that you trust their decisions and only email you if there is a specific problem they cannot move forward from.

It may be an extreme option for some, but why not set an out of office reply which says that you only check emails between 10.30am to 11.30am and 3.00pm and 4pm so not to expect an immediate reply from you. This immediate reply expectation is what forces many people to check their emails almost constantly which is so unproductive for their working day. Ask yourself the next time you find yourself clicking reply immediately – would not replying to this for 2 hours really be a serious problem?

While corporate systems like intranets and enterprise social networks (that can help move email traffic into a more manageable place) have a role to play in information management you should understand that the ultimate responsibility sits with you. Once you acknowledge that there is too much information for you to consume it all you can start to make active decisions as to what not to consume. Changing your approach to information will not be easy as you have likely developed a range of information habits similar to stopping at every burger restaurant and buying an icecream every time you hear the van's jingle. The amount of knowledge that you are exposed to is only going to increase over time – at some point you will need to tackle the way that you consume. Why not start today and put in place habits that will make you knowledge fit, not knowledge obese.

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