Saturday, 16 October 2010

Information Overload

I went to an interesting lecture organised by the London Central Branch of the BCS last week, by Ian Price from Grimsdyke Consulting and the Information Overload Research Group.

He started off by comparing Churchill's 1953(?) vision of the future work/life balance with the reality now. Apparently Churchill predicted that the "working man" would soon need to work only 4 days a week because of productivity increases, and hence would have plenty of leisure time. ("You've never had it so good" — or was that Macmillan?).

Of course we know that the picture today is very different. People are tied to their laptops and BlackBerrys in the evenings and at weekends. They feel the need to continually monitor and respond to their email even when "relaxing" or on the move. Tony Blair is quoted as saying, "Today my Blackberry is everything to me, so much so that one day Leo asked me: 'Dad, who do you love more, me or the phone?'"

He outlined the effects of this addiction. Up to 12% of payroll costs are spent on inefficient use of email. Reading just-arrived emails interrupts our flow of work and sometimes completely sidetracks us for long periods. And such interruptions even seem to have a negative effect on our IQ. Further time is wasted because of the temptation to use social networking sites or to play games when we should be working. People read their email in the bedroom and bathroom — even while driving. (BMW has teamed up with BlackBerry so that you can now monitor your emails from the driving seat.) People feel inadequate and insecure if they're not on the phone or dealing with email when they're in an airport lounge.

It is recent technological advances that make more-or-less instant communication possible, of course. The speed of person-to-person communication did not change much, perhaps, from the use of clay tablets in around 3,000 BC to that of internal company memos in the 1980s.

I was disappointed in Ian's analysis of the reason for such addiction. He turned to evolutionary theory and suggested that the need to know snippets of information stems from man's Stone Age past. Knowing the latest gossip would put you at an advantage within your tribe — which only goes to show that you can use evolution to prove more or less anything you like about human behaviour. He didn't seem to notice the significance of his later remark: "Our wiring hasn't changed over 100,000 years".

However, he did make some useful suggestions about how to deal with this information overload — which is why I thought this post might be useful. (We've got there in the end! Thanks for staying with me so far.)

Organisations should set rules for the use of email (and enforce them):
* There is no such thing as an urgent email. (Emails may not be read; they aren't guaranteed to arrive. Why not pick up the phone or go and talk to someone?)
* Don't use email as the first resort for internal communications. (Have a meeting first, and then send an email to summarize.)
* Don't email out of hours. (If the CEO writes emails on Sunday afternoon, he puts pressure on others to act in the same way.)
* Don't use email for negative feedback or "flaming". (I'm sure I'm not alone in having a weekend ruined because of a negatively-phrased email — even if was unintentionally so.)
* Don't use email for complex debates. (Set up a wiki instead.)
* Only copy people on emails if it's absolutely necessary.

He also helpfully suggested how individuals can avoid many of the problems that excessive use of email brings by:
* Tackling emails only in focused bouts, two or three times a day.
* Being ruthless with deleting and filing.
* Aiming to see the bottom of your inbox at the end of each day. (Leaving lots of emails to deal with another time only fills your mind with useless clutter, and you'll feel guilty about not dealing with them sooner.)
* Turning off all new email indicators.
* Closing down your mail client when doing something else.

And, finally, Ian suggested some tools that might help:
* (for Outlook) xobni
* AwayFind
* (for gmail users) Priority Inbox