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Unplugged: Information Overload Requires a Human Solution

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (13-Oct-2005)

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"Why does the dog wag his tail?" asked Robert De Niro in the movie Wag the Dog. "Because the dog is smarter than the tail. If the tail were smarter than the dog, the tail would wag the dog." This raises a similar question in the context of technology: Are we running technology or is technology running us?

We're all getting more and more wired into our technological tools—tools that we claim help improve personal productivity. In July, I wrote a feature, Dealing with Information Overload, that discussed how we can improve the manner in which we manage our intranet content. Since then I've read numerous articles stating the issue of information overload is greatly exaggerated—statements made mostly by those in the software industry (surprise, surprise)—and that people just need better written software. But is this really the answer?

While software, when used properly, can do a great deal to enhance and complement our own underlying abilities to organize and digest information, is it really be the panacea software vendors are claiming? I don't think so. Poorly written software can be the culprit for some of our inefficiencies, but that's a very narrow view. We need to look at the bigger picture: Firstly, our over reliance on technology as a substitute for abilities that should be inherent in us. And secondly, the almost obsessive need to be "plugged in."

Simply blaming current technology—or using it as a scapegoat—is avoiding the real problem. The question shouldn't be so much “is technology doing it's job?”, it should be “are we allowing technology to wag the dog?” I believe that many people suffering from information overload are allowing technology to run them rather than the other way around. More technology isn't always the answer, no matter how well written or developed. To borrow from another movie, Soylent Green: Productivity is people.


Personal Unproductivity

Powering up my home office is like powering up NASA's Mission Control. High-speed modem, check; printer and fax, check; cell phone, check; PC, check; primary and secondary external hard disk drives, check; coffee machine, check. We are go for launch. With all this, my friend still asks, "Why don't you get a BlackBerry?" (or what some refer to affectionately as a CrackBerry for its addictive qualities).

Think for a moment about how many times a day you break your train of thought or stop what you're working on to check your e-mail, answer voicemail, Google something insignificant, or check an online news site. I must admit that I've been guilty of all these productivity infractions in the past—and most of the times I wasn't even aware that I was doing it. It just naturally happened because it was there. I can even recall some instances where I interrupted my interruptions. I'll be in the middle of writing an article when my e-mail client chimes in with an interesting story from a BBC newsfeed. I would spend a few minutes reading it and then forward the story to several colleagues and friends who might also find the piece interesting. Within an hour an e-mail debate or conversation would break out, giving me another story idea. I'd start jotting down notes and possible research sources when it clicks: my original article is still sitting in my taskbar.

When I finally realized that I needed to return to what I was originally working on, it took me forever to get the rhythm going again. And all that time spent "getting back into the groove" is unproductive time. I was wasting time trying to get back to the point I was at originally—that's the true definition of moving backwards.

According to Dr. Donald Wetmore—the creator of the Productivity Institute and a 30-year veteran in the field of personal productivity and time management—the average person is interrupted once every eight minutes. Eighty percent of these interruptions are rated as having little-to-no value, creating approximately three hours of wasted time per day.

But that was then. Now I no longer feel the need to read every piece of information that comes my way when I get it, or to answer non-emergency e-mails immediately. If I'm in the middle of something important and the phone rings, I let it ring and allow voicemail to take care of it. I schedule three times during the work day—the morning, just before lunch, and at the end of the day—in which to address my non-critical e-mail and catch up on news. Now I find that I'm getting almost twice as much done. Why? Because I changed the way I worked. I came to recognize my biggest time guzzlers and learned how to manage all the information coming at me from every direction.

Time management and personal productivity is a behavioral process; no software can teach you this. Technology is there to help you improve your own efficiency; it's not there to become a substitute.


Causes of Personal Unproductivity and Information Overload
Internal Causes External Causes
Obsessive need to be "plugged in" such as constantly checking e-mail or calling office.

Poor attention span and lack of focus.

Rampant multitasking and the inability to prioritize tasks.

Constant interruptions by colleagues (either in person, by phone, or e-mail).

Poorly structured and/or repetitive content.

Counterintuitive software that doesn't conform to the natural way in which humans function.


Selfware vs. Software: Going Back to the Basics

Technology is a great thing. It can help you accomplish tasks that used to take twice as long, if not more. But you can't use technology alone to manage information overload anymore than you can use fire to treat a burn. If you don't already possess the basic skills to manage information, technology might become a hindrance more than a help—it becomes a liability, a part of the problem. Not only will you be overwhelmed by information, you'll have to wrestle with the software as well. Too many IT executives jump the gun, blaming the tools without understanding what's truly hampering employees' ability to process information. And to make matters even worse, they try to solve the problem by throwing even more technology at it.

Information overload is a human problem that needs a human solution. Before we can design better software, we first need to understand and address our own abilities (or inabilities) to manage information and organize our work day. If we can't do it ourselves, how can we teach software to do it for us? It will just be a case of the blind leading the blind. Remember: Technology is a tool for personal productivity, not a replacement. It can't exhibit the good judgment of a human being. Technological solutions can only be as good as the people using and developing it.

Technology alone won't solve all your personal productivity and information overload problems—it can only ease them. If you're inefficient to begin with, no amount of technology will fix that. It will just mean you're inefficient with an expensive toy. A true solution is based both on behavior and technology; it's based on three factors which need to be addressed in proper order:

  1. Individual productivity and efficiency (behavioral)
  2. Corporate culture and environment (behavioral)
  3. Software applications (technological)

When you rely solely on the technology to dictate the information you receive, how to put it to use, and when to put it to use, we slowly lose our own mental abilities to do the same. It's a sort of mental atrophy similar to physical atrophy. If you don't exercise your muscles they waste away over time. And if you don't work on your own mental abilities to organize, prioritize, and focus the technology becomes a mental crutch. You stop running the technology, and the technology starts running you.


Corporate Revolution?

Changing the frenetic pace in which you work is the first step to improved productivity, but you can't do it alone—especially if everyone around you is running around like the proverbial chicken. Some companies have implemented various initiatives to help their employees combat the problems of personal productivity, time management, and information control. Some examples include:

I often wonder, however, as to the true effectiveness of these type of measures. Restricting what employees can do might simply cause resentment in the workplace; or be seen as overly controlling employers. What we really need more than anything is a change in perception and attitude.

The fast-paced business world has bred a corporate culture that dictates if you're not in constant motion, you're not being productive. Passers-by will see co-workers who are “just sitting there” and think they're not doing anything. But everyone needs that uninterrupted downtime in which to calm their minds and gather their thoughts. This is especially true for those in the creative field where these quiet uninterrupted moments of thought bring about eureka-type ideas. Some solutions are surprisingly low-tech.

It's OK to slow down, or to "Zen out" as I like to call it; and there shouldn't be any guilt in doing so. I've solved some of my most difficult work problems when perfectly still—not typing furiously away. These quiet moments can really help reduce the constant chatter racing through your mind and give you the clarity needed to figure out problems. But to many employers, if you're not working on five things at once, you're inefficient. This attitude needs to change.

Multitasking isn't the asset many employers make it out to be. In fact, multitasking, outside the context of computers, isn't possible. Dr. Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist with over a decade's worth of experience in the field of attention deficit disorder, says, "No one really multitasks. You just spend less time on any one thing." He goes on further to say, "Your brain literally can't multitask. You can't pay attention to two things simultaneously. You're switching back and forth between the two. So you're paying less concerted attention to either one."


Closing Thoughts

People seem to feel the need to be plugged into information and technology at all times whether they truly need it or not simply because it's there. Sometimes you need to step back and ask, "Am I really going to read all these newsfeeds I've subscribed to?"; "Am I using these technological solutions because they really do help me become more productive?"; "Is this PDA really necessary?"

It's alright not to be plugged in 24⁄7. I've personally improved my own productivity and ability to manage large amounts of information with this lesson. Some of my best articles were written in a quiet cafe with my cell phone off and laptop offline. Everyone needs to take a step back and look at what the real problem is. Maybe it's not the technology that's broken. Maybe it doesn't need rewriting. Maybe it's us that needs the “rewriting”. Maybe if we spend a little more time improving our own abilities to organize our tasks and digest incoming information we'll actually improve the manner in which we use the technology. Unplugged shouldn't have to mean unglued.


Copyright © 2005 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
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