Information Overload: Is There a Cure?

PALO ALTO, CALIF. — Basex chief analyst Jonathan Spira wants to make one thing clear to people who think it’s more effective to juggle multiple tasks at once:

“There’s no such thing as multitasking,” Spira said. “We’re switching between tasks, but we [human beings] are not capable of multitasking.”

The comments came during a recent panel discussion here, dubbed “Silicon Valley Fights Back Against the (Information) Monster it Created” and sponsored by the Churchill Club, a regional business and technology organization.

Spira’s point is more than semantic. The thinking is that when someone stops working on a document to answer the phone or respond to an e-mail, the original task is interrupted — not handled simultaneously.

More significantly, Spira said his firm’s research indicates that the time lost “recovering” from interruptions may be worse than the interruption itself.

For instance, when interrupted by a phone call, e-mail or other distraction, the time needed to get back to where you left off on your original task could take from ten to twenty times longer than the interruption.

Not surprisingly, those lost minutes add up: Basex estimates knowledge workers lose about two hours a day to interruptions, costing the economy hundreds of billions of dollars a year in lost productivity.

Part of the problem can be blamed on the very technology that’s supposedly making us more productive. Cell phones, instant messages, e-mail and the like have all conspired to create unprecedented, unmanageable levels of information overload.

With one notable exception, the experts gathered for the “Silicon Valley Fights Back Against the (Information) Monster it Created” panel agreed the constant flow of information and interruptions are a serious problem.

But John Poisson, founder and CEO of Tiny Pictures, said he disagreed with the premise that there’s a serious information overload problem.

“Saying there’s too much information is like saying there’s too much food at the buffet,” Poisson said. “Just stop and manage it.”

Poisson’s company is very much geared to the interrupt-driven personality — or, as he puts it, a younger demographic. Tiny Picture’s Radar service enables users to share real-time pictures and video from any camera- and Web-enabled phone.

“This constant stream of shared experience between friends becomes a ongoing group conversation, and a simple and powerful way to stay in touch,” according to the company’s Web site.

Radar is geared to 16-to-24-year-olds “who are more comfortable switching modalities and tools,” Poisson added.

So is this just a generational issue? The panel drew no firm conclusions, though several speakers predicted today’s younger generation will likely face some new technology, years from now, to which they’ll similarly find it hard to adapt.

For now, it seems it’s becoming increasingly difficult for knowledge workers of all ages to pull away from the information buffet.

Another panelist, Tony Wright, is CEO of RescueTime, a Web-based management tool that tracks how you spend time on your computer. Wright said aggregated data from the three months since the tool launched has proved startling.

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Despite the fact that most of RescueTime’s users are “people who care about their productivity,” he said, the typical user “Alt-Tabbed” (i.e. switches among applications) 70 times per day. About 17 percent of those switches were to an e-mail program, while six percent were to an instant message chat window.

Just how much all that task-switching makes for a drain on productivity isn’t clear. But if Spira is anywhere near correct about the significant time needed by interrupted workers to return to their original tasks, it’s sure to be a daunting amount.

Panelists also discussed the kind of information addiction that seems to drive people to always be checking their BlackBerries and e-mail for the latest new bit of info.

Moderator Matt Richtel, a reporter for the New York Times, said he’s seen reports of some psychologists using the phrase “acquired ADD” to describe people who seemed to have developed Attention Deficit Disorder as a result of their interaction with online media and mobile devices.

“We seem to be able to retain boredom for less time,” Richtel said.

Another panelist attributed the activity to a lottery mentality of self-reinforcing behavior: All it takes is one e-mail out of many to be useful for users to feel motivated enough to keep spinning the wheel — or hitting Send/Receive.

Silicon Valley goes ‘topless

Ellen Siminoff, chairman of search engine marketing firm Efficient Frontier, said she’s seeing more examples of information addiction in the workplace.

“It seems like a meeting can’t go five minutes without someone checking their BlackBerry,” she said.

But that may be changing. Some Silicon Valley firms are going “‘topless” by banning the use of laptops and other personal electronic devices in meetings — a trend Siminoff heartily endorses.

“People have lost the ability to make logical decisions,” she said. “I’m shocked that some feel it’s okay to do e-mail in a meeting or multitask. I think it’s the epitome of rudeness.”

Not surprisingly, it would be a grave mistake to start texting during a meeting at Efficient Frontier. “If you can’t pay attention, leave the meeting,” Siminoff said.

Likewise, Spira said he thinks e-mail is a fantastic tool, it’s just not always used properly.

For instance, he had one piece of advice for everyone that uses e-mail:

“If you get a group message, do not hit Reply All to say ‘Great’ or ‘Thanks’. If we could just eliminate that, it would be a great start.”

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