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Guest column: Information Overload – Five Authors’ Points-of-View

By on June 30, 20115 Comments

What channel is it on?

On Monday, the Information Overload Research Group (IORG) hosted a virtual literary salon on the topic of Information Overload entitled “Five Authors, Five Books, A Dialogue on Information Overload.”  The event featured authors who have written recent books related to the subject of Information Overload.  They were asked to discuss why they wrote their books, and what issues they feel are most relevant today.

Dave Crenshaw, author of The Myth of Multitasking, spoke about the problem of switch tasking, which describes what happens when people switch back and forth rapidly between tasks, lowering their productivity.  Crenshaw suggested several strategies for dealing with Information Overload, including setting definite start and end times for work in order to increase the productivity of work-designated times, learning to say no to new projects, and avoiding the “Double Q” (just one quick question). The Double Q is particularly vexing as those kinds of questions cause multiple small interruptions.  The best way to deal with the problem is to group all the little question into a single one-to-one meeting, avoiding the steady stream of small interruptions.

Daniel Forrester, author of Consider, mentioned that he was motivated to write his book in part by reading about how Bill Gates would schedule “Think Weeks” for thought and reflection twice a year.  At the time, he was also questioning how multitasking was affecting his own life and reading research that proved that multitasking was largely impossible.  Forrester went on to outline how he began looking at information-related military issues in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the leadership style of different leaders such as David Petraeus and Colin Powell.  He noted that we are still not spending enough time thinking and reflecting, saying that he believes the most successful companies and individuals will be those who engage in what he called “group reflection” as opposed to group think.

Next, Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted, outlined her argument that we risk heading into a Dark Age due to our lack of deep thinking, excessive work/life balance degradation, and a drop in listening skills.  She outlined the three types of attention, namely focus, awareness, and executive attention, and how people can be trained either to be distracted or to be focused.  She finished with a call to action to question our assumptions and values about how we think about attention, with a shift back to emphasizing focused thought and setting up our environments to support deep thought and reflection.

William Powers, author of Hamlet’s BlackBerry, spoke about his realization of how the medium through which we consume information, namely screens, shapes our lives.  Prior to writing his book, he had begun to notice that it became difficult to get through more than a few pages in a good novel before feeling the urge to look at a screen.  Powers discussed how he went back to historical moments when humans faced technological challenges, and found practical examples of people dealing with information consumption and striking healthy balances in their lives.  He concluded that we all have to realize the benefits of finding a healthy balance and setting limits on information consumption.

To finish the discussion, Jonathan Spira, author of Overload!, discussed the evolution of his research into Information Overload over the last 20 years.  His starting point emerged from his observations of the problems that occur when knowledge workers share information and collaborate, almost all of them Information Overload-related.  This led him on a 20-year journey to address these issues and help people deal with the problem.  He outlined the phenomenon of recovery time, which is the time it takes a knowledge worker to return to the task at hand after an interruption (five to ten times the length of the interruption itself).  Jonathan also shared some statistics on how widespread the problem is: for example, 94% of knowledge workers have felt overwhelmedto the point of incapacitation by the amount of information they encounter on a daily basis.  His parting thought was that we can all do something about Information Overload by taking personal responsibility for the problem and taking action in whatever ways we can, such as by sending clearer e-mail, or by valuing our colleagues’ time as if it were our own.

Jonathan, who was also serving as moderator, ended the event three minutes early and told attendees that he was hereby returning three additional minutes to them for the purpose of thought and reflection.

The entire event, including a question and answer session, can be heard in its entirety here.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.


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