In­for­ma­tion over­load hurts pro­duc­tiv­ity

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - Homes - By Roberto Rocha

By one es­ti­mate, in­for­ma­tion over­load costs work­ers eight hours a week of pro­duc­tiv­ity. But on the first ever In­for­ma­tion Over­load Aware­ness Day, the toll was half an hour.

In a small twist of irony, the Web con­fer­ence for the re­cent event was over­loaded with users and de­layed while the tech­ni­cal team tried to ac­com­mo­date every­one.

Ba­sex, the re­search firm that organized the event would call this an “un­nec­es­sary in­ter­rup­tion,” which, it claims, when spread across the U.S. econ­omy, sucks 28 per cent of a knowl­edge worker’s day and costs the U.S. econ­omy $900 bil­lion a year in lost pro­duc­tiv­ity.

In­for­ma­tion over­load, the New York-based firm says, is pre­cisely that: the con­stant dis­rup­tion of the work day with ir­rel­e­vant ma­te­rial, in­clud­ing e-mails, meet­ings, au­to­mated news feeds and Twit­ter.

Though the fig­ures cal­cu­lated by Ba­sex have been con­tested as de­cep­tive and in­flated — Craig Roth of the Bur­ton Group says not all dis­trac­tions are harm­ful in­ter­rup­tions — there’s no deny­ing that com­pa­nies and work­ers are over­whelmed with in­for­ma­tion.

“Peo­ple aren’t shut­ting off. They go to sleep think­ing about what they have to do, and they wake up think­ing about what they have to do,” said Christina Ran­dle, a speaker at the event and CEO of The Ef­fec­tive Edge, a maker of pro­duc­tiv­ity soft­ware.

In other words, there’s a rea­son why Web­ster’s New World Col­lege Dic­tio­nary de­clared “crack­berry” the word of the year in 2006.

The speak­ers agreed that in­for­ma­tion over­load de­prives work­ers of much-needed “think time,” where knowl­edge is ab­sorbed and di­gested, and new ideas are con­ceived.

Ba­sex has num­bers for that, too: dis­rup­tions leave knowl­edge work­ers — lawyers, aca­demics, sci­en­tists, and other ca­reers that rely on in­for­ma­tion in­ter­pre­ta­tion — with only 12 per cent of the day for thought and re­flec­tion, “even though knowl­edge work­ers think for a liv­ing,” said Jonathan Spira, se­nior an­a­lyst at Ba­sex.

For Spira, the rea­son work­ers in­ter­rupt each other is a mat­ter of so­ci­o­log­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance. For one, he senses that every­one thinks ev­ery­thing they do is ur­gent. “There’s a need for in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion,” he said. “Peo­ple have no qualms about in­ter­rupt­ing what oth­ers are do­ing.”

This trans­lates into un­rea­son­able ex­pec­ta­tions of re­sponse time, where an e-mail that goes unan­swered for two min­utes is fol­lowed by an­other one ask­ing if the first one was re­ceived.

But while it’s easy to blame co­work­ers for the dis­trac­tion, peo­ple need to look within and back in time, said Mag­gie Jack­son, au­thor of Dis­tracted: The Ero­sion of At­ten­tion and the Com­ing Dark Age.

Peo­ple over­load them­selves with in­for­ma­tion by think­ing that mul­ti­task­ing is an ef­fi­cient way to work, when, in fact, it de­creases one’s at­ten­tion for ei­ther task.

“You’re only get­ting a cer­tain type of ef­fi­ciency when switch­ing tasks ev­ery three min­utes,” she said. “And when peo­ple feel scat­tered they have low­ered cre­ativ­ity. Stress and frus­tra­tion are cor­re­lated with a highly in­ter­rupted work­place.”

Jack­son traced mul­ti­task­ing back to the­o­ries of ef­fi­ciency from the In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion, namely the idea of chop­ping work into man­age­able pieces.

But this hasn’t worked for In­for­ma­tion Age.

She said com­pa­nies need to train their work­ers to im­prove at­ten­tion skills and ac­tive lis­ten­ing. This will take a huge cul­tural shift in which we “ques­tion our old value sys­tem,” she said.

“Our idea of a suc­cess­ful per­son is some­one who’s so hur­ried and wed-

the ded to their mo­bile gad­get that he half lis­tens to those around him,” she said. “This is a poor role model.”

There are also tools to man­age the flow of in­for­ma­tion, soft­ware that sorts e-mail by rel­e­vance and makes peo­ple think be­fore send­ing a point­less mes­sage.

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