How to Beat Information Overload

E-mail, tweets, and Facebook updates are destroying our productivity and our leisure

11 min read
Photo by Fredrik Brodén
Photo: Fredrik Brodén

Information, the very thing that makes it possible to be an engineer, a doctor, a lawyer, or any other kind of modern information worker, is threatening our ability to do our work. How’s that for irony?

The global economy may run on countless streams, waves, and pools of information, but unrestrained, that tidal wave of data is drowning us. It washes away our productivity and creativity, swamps our social lives, and can even shipwreck our relationships.

Some of us actually call it “quality time” when we sit on the sofa with our kids scrolling through e-mail on our BlackBerries. Take a few days of well-earned vacation and you spend them dreading the thousand e-mails that await your return—e-mails you’ll spend a day clearing while putting off real work. On your next trip, you try to head off that problem by taking your computer along so you can chip away at the inflow late at night in your hotel room. The result? Thoughts of work cloud your enjoyment of what should be a respite from office life.

But information overload isn’t just about having too much e-mail, voice mail, and text messages. It’s a much more complex problem, and its effects take a toll on companies’ bottom lines and on their employees’ well-being. The time that information workers invest in coping with this overload is significant; at Intel, where I was until recently a principal engineer, we assessed the loss due to unnecessary e-mails and unproductive interruptions at 8 hours a week. In a 1996 Reuters survey of 1300 managers worldwide, two out of three respondents associated information overload with loss of job satisfaction and tension with colleagues, and 42 percent attributed ill health to this stress. Today, more than 10 years later, the numbers would likely be even higher.

Academic researchers have been studying the problem for years, and now at last organizations are beginning to wake up and take action to mitigate it. Some are deploying training and behavioral change programs, trying their hands at setting up quotas and encouraging alternatives to e-mail, and experimenting with interruption-free “quiet time” blocks. Change is in the air.

Whatever you want to call it—infomania? infoglut?—it’s a combination of two elements: queued messaging overload and interruptions or distractions. Queued messaging overload can happen anywhere you have a queue of incoming messages, most notably your e-mail in-box. Some of the messages are critical, most are not, but they all accumulate until you deal with them. Information workers typically receive 50 to 200 work-related e-mails daily. Surveys at Intel showed that people spend some 20 hours a week processing work-related e-mail messages, of which about a third are unnecessary. Processing this third took workers about 2 hours a week.

Interruptions and distractions take many forms. They include ringing phones, text messages, instant messages, the chime that alerts you to incoming e-mail, and, of course, a colleague dropping by your office to chat. Any of these will break your chain of thought and may make you drop your current task to start another. The myth that this is okay because people can multitask is just that; ample research proves that the brain simply doesn’t work that way.

Even when the interrupting task is related to work, you still waste time as your brain switches from one task to another and back again. Field research by Gloria Mark and her colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, shows that information workers are interrupted on average every 3 minutes. Even if it takes the brain only a minute to get back in gear, that’s a lot of wasted time.

Constant distractions also make us stupid. Research clearly demonstrates that interruptions degrade accuracy, judgment, creativity, and effective management. The psychiatrist Edward Hallowell coined the term attention deficit trait to describe this phenomenon and found that it makes people perform far below their full potential.

Creative thinking, essential to many engineering jobs, requires long stretches of uninterrupted time. Programmers are known for working odd hours, when they can have the quiet they need to concentrate. Other professionals find that their best thinking takes place on airplanes and in hotels during business trips, when they’re somewhat disconnected. But even this time is shrinking fast as remote access becomes ubiquitous. At one company, researchers found that recipients read 70 percent of e-mails within 6 seconds of arrival. In the battle between creative thought and distractions, creativity is losing.

William Shockley knew the value of isolation. In 1948, shortly after his colleagues John Bardeen and Walter Brattain invented the point-contact transistor in Shockley’s absence, he became so upset that he holed up in a hotel room. He knew he needed a quiet place to think. Some days later he emerged, having worked out the basic design for the far superior junction transistor that became the key to modern electronics.

Today few can afford the luxury of such isolation. While just about everybody agrees that electronic messaging is critical to modern business and that some interruptions are vital to workplace interactions, clearly they’ve become too much of a good thing. This glut affects Fortune 500 corporations, tiny companies, schools, government agencies, churches, and nonprofits. Just about everyone, in other words.

The irony of all this constant communication is that we’re not communicating well at all. Consider the meeting where everyone’s eyes are glued to their BlackBerries or laptops. They’re sifting through e-mail or scanning reports or updating spreadsheets; nobody is paying attention to the business at hand. Long ago, e-mail used to guarantee a next-day response; today employees respond to many of their messages slowly or not at all. In the process, they may delay progress on key projects. Catherine Durnell Cramton, an associate professor in the School of Management at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., identified e-mail silence as one of the biggest challenges facing geographically dispersed teams. Let’s say Jack fails to answer Jill’s e-mail asking him to weigh in on an important question. She may misinterpret his silence as indifference, when in fact he may be just too swamped or distracted to fashion a coherent response. Misunderstandings like that can hamper a team’s performance.

The very paradigm of work planning has changed: Where we used to be plan driven—we had a plan and spent our time executing it—we are now “interrupt driven.” We respond, sometimes on the spot, to any request for action. This unplanned shift of priorities can derail progress on the primary job.

Your Blackberry goes off during your anniversary dinner—for the third time. Sound familiar? These days many of us have to make ourselves available to our jobs literally 24/7. And with hundreds of queued, unread messages weighing on our minds, we spend an increasing fraction of our evenings, weekends, and vacations processing mail, to the detriment of our well-being and that of our families.

Judiciously applied work-from-home options can significantly enhance both productivity and work-life balance—if handled correctly. Working for Intel in Israel, I had many late-evening meetings with colleagues up to 10 time zones away. It helped enormously that I could sit in on those teleconferences from home after dinner rather than staying in the office. Intel also allowed me one telecommuting day each week, which I put to good use. However, bringing work home like that made it a challenge to keep my weekends and evenings work-free, what with the stream of e-mail continuing to flow in.

Click for larger image
Analyze: ClearContext Professional also includes e-mail analysis tools [above] and, just for fun, lets you compare your e-mail behavior with that of other users. It doesn’t, however, answer the question of whether getting a speedy average response time is good or bad.

So what’s the answer? At this point, every organization recognizes that information overload is a problem, and a small but growing fraction of organizations are actually doing something about it. Intel, for instance, has been trying different approaches to the problem since 1995. That’s long enough to have figured out a few remedies that work—and understand why others don’t do as well. At first glance the causes of and fixes for information overload would seem obvious: People send too many messages—if only they’d send less! And to be sure, part of the issue is the thoughtless use of communication channels. People write long messages where shorter ones would do, or hit “Reply All” where one recipient would suffice. Such bad habits lead many organizations to think they can solve the problem simply by issuing memos of “Top 10 E-mail Tips” advising people not to do all that. If only it were that easy.

Senders of superfluous e-mail know full well that it will be deleted; after all, they do the same thing when they’re the recipients. Why, then, do they send it? The reasons run deep in the murky undercurrents of organizational culture. People may hit Reply All because they think sending a message at midnight will impress the boss, or they may be trying to cover themselves and create a paper trail in an organization where mistrust is a factor. The situation calls to mind the “tragedy of the commons” scenario: Everyone would prefer that there be fewer messages, but nobody can afford to be the first to cut back on sending them.

Unfortunately, organizational culture evolves much more slowly than technology does. New information channels appear and are adopted with little attention to the behavioral outcomes. When a new device makes it possible, for instance, to communicate with workers who are on vacation, nobody stops to question whether applying this capability might contribute to employee burnout. The time has come to change this shortsighted approach. Before adopting any new technology, we should figure out how best to use it in the cultural context it will inhabit.

Given that information overload arises from a variety of sources, it’s not too surprising that the solutions also run the gamut, from the simple to the complex. At the simple end are guidelines on e-mail management that employees are encouraged, but not required, to adopt. Although these guidelines don’t remove the problem’s root causes, they are easy to implement and often do have a positive impact. In 2007, Intel’s worldwide IT group circulated a carefully chosen e-mail guideline to its employees every few weeks (for example, “Make a long story short—add a management summary to lengthy messages”). Meanwhile, the company offered prizes for employees’ own improvement ideas. The program indeed increased awareness, improved behavior, and reduced the reported time for e-mail processing, and it has been adopted by additional groups in the company.

At the other end of the complexity scale was a program called YourTime, deployed across most of Intel in 2000. It was based on a waterfall model, in that it started at the top management level, which was exposed to the required training and thinking, and then moved down level by level, with each manager at each level training his or her staff, who then trained their own staffs, and so on, all the way to the bottom of the hierarchy. At each level people received awareness training, held a team discussion to identify changes in the context of their own work, and took skill coaching that made them more proficient in the effective use of e-mail. The program sought to teach individuals the skills required for faster in-box processing while helping teams to define “group contracts”—mutually agreed-upon behaviors and expectations that would reduce the misuse and abuse of e-mail. This program was also quite successful—for a while.

The problem with such training drives is that they are inevitably forgotten in a year or two. To maintain the impact, you must reinforce the training periodically. That’s not hard to do, as the trainings are relatively inexpensive to implement, but it does take some effort and time.

In recent years companies have been experimenting with more radical solutions. One approach is to apply quotas to the e-mail messages a worker can send. The manager of one British company went so far as to ban e-mail altogether for internal messaging. Others have merely limited the number of messages a person may send in a day. One of the most sophisticated systems for influencing e-mail usage is Attent, from Seriosity, based in Palo Alto, Calif. It works by charging “postage” to send an e-mail, paid in a virtual currency denominated in “serios.” The more urgent your e-mail, the more serios you attach to it; the recipients can then reuse the serios to send their own messages. Research into such systems is ongoing, and the opportunities for refinement include varying the postage according to parameters like the number of recipients, the recipient’s organizational role (a senior manager might charge more postage for his or her attention), and the length of the message.

What about shielding employees from interruption? Many engineers secure thinking time on their own by working odd hours (say, coming in at 6 a.m.). A more structured approach is scheduling quiet time, an experiment described in detail by Leslie Perlow, a professor at Harvard Business School, in her book Finding Time (Cornell University Press, 1997). At a Fortune 500 company that manufactures computing hardware, she blocked out three mornings a week for the engineers in a design team to work without interruption, posting signs during the quiet periods to remind them of this commitment. She reported that the policy led to faster completion of the design project as well as a less harassing work environment.

In 2007 and 2008 Intel conducted a pilot of this methodology, albeit for only one morning per week, with a team of 300 design engineers and their managers. Results were encouraging: In surveys, 45 percent of respondents said they found the methodology effective as it was, and 71 percent recommended that Intel extend it to other groups, possibly with some modifications. People applied the quiet hours in different ways. We had expected that the quiet hours would be most useful for the designers, but even people in support roles benefited from having one morning a week when they could catch their breath, plan, and deal with the accumulation of tasks that were not related to their primary roles. Following the pilot, the company has gone on to try the approach with other groups.

Companies can also institute what has come to be called a Zero E-mail Day. The catchy name is in fact a misnomer: The idea isn’t to ban e-mail on a given day. Rather, it’s an attempt to break the e-mail addiction by getting everyone in a work group to agree to collaborate on the chosen day, by walking across the aisle, talking to coworkers, and solving problems in real time, rather than shooting an e-mail to someone just two cubicles away.

The most successful Zero E-mail Day program I know of was undertaken at PBD Worldwide Fulfillment Services, a company in Alpharetta, Ga., whose business involves warehousing products and filling orders. In this case, the CEO made it clear that he was passionate about the project. The results included enthusiastic employees, delighted customers, and a significant reduction in e-mail volume during the rest of the week.

An obvious next step would be to enlist technology to help prevent interrupting people at the wrong time. Development along these lines is happening in various quarters. Microsoft Research has prototyped a tool called Priorities, which analyzes incoming messages to predict their criticality, examines the recipient’s current activity, and takes action accordingly. A message deemed to be urgent from a sender known to be important to the recipient may trigger an immediate alert or be forwarded to the recipient’s mobile device, while delivery of a less urgent message may be deferred.

Another simple, automated approach is just-in-time coaching. Clearly, many breaches of e-mail etiquette are the result of simple oversight: hitting Reply All instead of Reply, forgetting to attach a file, or leaving the subject line blank. These situations are easily detectable by software, such as the E-mail Effectiveness Coach, a homegrown tool Intel had used in the early years of this decade. This ran in the background, and whenever the user clicked Send, it checked the message for etiquette problems; if one was found, a friendly alert popped up to give the user the opportunity to correct it. For example, when a user composed a message referring to attachments and the tool noticed that no files were attached, the alert would say, “Did you notice your message contains a reference to an attachment, but there are no attached files?” and then provide the option to abort the Send operation and go back to fix the problem.

There is also a growing body of products that automate the classification and handling of messages in the in-box of the individual user. A good example is ClearContext Professional, from San Francisco–based ClearContext Corp. It analyzes a user’s e-mail history to identify the important messages and correspondents; provides in-box views that sort and color-code messages by importance, topic, and so forth; and places messages, contacts, meetings, and tasks into one contextual framework where all things related to a given project are presented and managed together. No one tool is best for everyone, but there is enough choice that anyone can find a tool that matches his or her work style.

While many personal tools exist, it’s surprising how little has been done at an organization-wide level to fight a problem as big as information overload, considering that the cost of fixing it is trivial compared to the potential benefit. This failure may in part be due to the critical role of electronic communications in today’s workplace and beyond; many people feel horrified by the thought of any interference with the free flow of information.

This thinking, however, is wrong. In reality, there is a continuum between doing nothing and preventing all communication. We need to discover the optimal balance of communication and thinking time, human interaction and concentration, useful messages and junk. Convincing individuals and organizations to actually do something is not easy, but a slowly growing number of cases show that people can manage information with good results. What is most needed are managers with the vision and leadership to move their organizations to make the changes.

So, whatever organization you’re in, try to identify ways to mitigate information overload—not just for yourself, but for your entire organization. Try to convince your coworkers and your managers to create a serious program, either using the tools and approaches that are already out there or inventing new ones. The main thing is to renounce the attitude that this is how things are and nothing can be done.

A lot can be done; let’s do it.

This article originally appeared in print as “Infoglut.”

To Probe Further

Visit the Information Overload Research Group’s site at Nathan Zeldes’s personal Web site is

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