Information overload solutions from a conference dedicated to the topic

July 17, 2008 by Jared Goralnick

IORG Forum Splash (cropped from the original pic below) I’m overwhelmed with ideas from the Information Overload conference this week.  In an effort to reflect, I’ve listed some of the major stats and themes discussed for managing too much stuff.

The Information Overload Research Group (IORG) is “a group of industry practitioners, academic researchers, and consultants dedicated to reducing information overload, a problem which diminishes the productivity and quality of life of knowledge workers worldwide.”  If you’ve spent even five minutes reading this blog, you can guess why I quickly joined their ranks.

IORG Forum banner

The conference involved a dinner gala, speaker panels, and lots of lively discussion.  Attendees came from all over the world, and comprised authors, professors, managers within big industry, and those trying to solve information overload problems with software. The following are some of the major themes and data points.

Some Scary Stats

(from NY Times using Basex data, and referenced during Jonathan Spira of Basex’s presentation)

  • $650 billion is the annual cost of interruptions for knowledge workers in the United States (Jonathan Spira, Basex)
  • 28% of a worker’s time is spent dealing with interruptions that are neither urgent nor important  (Spira)
  • About 12% of the average worker’s time is spent thinking or reflecting (Spira)
  • Email is not increasing linearly but exponentially (Spira)
  • About 6 hours per week are lost due to context switching (multitasking, pausing, etc).  This is a widely regarded number, but was confirmed at Intel (Nathan Zeldes, Intel)
  • At Intel, the average employee receives 350 messages per week (Zeldes)
  • At Intel, the average executive receives over 300 messages per day (Zeldes)
  • At Intel, employees spend about 20 hours per week managing email, 2 hours of which is unnecessary email (Zeldes)
  • At Morgan Stanley, the average employee receives 625 messages per week (Max Christoff, Morgan Stanley)
  • At Morgan Stanley, the average executive receives 500-600 messages per day (Christoff)

Historical / Almost Historical

  • 2001 was the first year that the knowledge economy overtook the industrial economy in terms of our gross economic output (I need to get an accurate quote on this, it’s also from Spira, I think)
  • Since the 18th century we were of the mindset “better, faster, sooner.”  But something strange happened in the 1920’s: we began to produce more than we needed.  And thus advertising really entered the picture.  Both the products we didn’t need and the new information being broadcast to us are noteworthy landmarks in our path toward information overload (David Levy, University of Washington)
  • With real carbon copies you could get 3 maybe 4 carbon copies in a typewriter.  Now you can easily CC 2500 people.  That’s a problem.  (Spira)
  • The sense of urgency and importance of our own needs has increased greatly—causing us to interrupt people more.  Perhaps this began in 1973 when Fedex first made overnight delivery possible (Spira)


  • “We have met the enemy and he is us” – we like to switch tasks frequently, which is perhaps our biggest weakness (Spira)
  • “Email is like Tetris.  As soon as you line up the boxes, more come down.” (Spira)
  • One of the problems with spending time thinking is that it doesn’t look like you’re doing any work (Levy)


  • Understand the tools you have, use just a few of them, and don’t switch tasks so often (Spira)
  • Managers need to focus on process, manage delicately, and set clear objectives (Spira)
  • Raise awareness of the problem of information overload (Spira, Levy, Hurst). Aside: knowing is not half the battle, but it’s a huge first step
  • A gulf which needs to be bridged is how technology vendors think people use their products versus how the product is actually used (Spira)
  • Some of the common ways knowledge workers avoid interruptions include going to distant cafes, working from home, showing up before others arrive, or going to conference rooms (and pulling the shades) (Spira)
  • We have so many more tools and so much more data…but spend MUCH less time thinking about it.  As such, we should seriously consider surrounding ourselves in both contemplative physical and online environments…and try harder to introduce contemplative practices into education (Levy)
  • Training is a serious need (Hurst, others).  A big first step may just be explaining how and when to use Reply-Alls
  • If people just understood how to separate their Inbox from their To Do list, that would also be a major first step (Mark Hurst, Good Experience / author of Bit Literacy)
  • For Intel, part of their “first generation approach” was a great deal of training about email.  To help make this training stick, they developed an “Intel Email Effectiveness Coach,” which is a software program that warns people when they’re about to do something stupid, like send a message to 2000 people (Zeldes)
  • For Intel, a “second generation approach” was having quiet periods, often of 4 hours, twice per week, where essentially people would disconnect from communication like email and phone (Zeldes)

General Points

  • Most people’s approach to dealing with more information is an incremental one: work harder, catch up on the weekend, etc…but there has become too much data to just accept it all.  You have to “let the bits go.”  (Hurst)
  • The competitive advantage we gained from getting more information faster is starting to disappear; now it’s how to get more relevant information (Christoff)


There were a number of sofware solutions to information overload discussed.  Some of the ones that stood out in my mind include:

  • RescueTime – keeps track of not just your activities on your computer but those of your office mates, enabling you to see how you stack up and when you’re slacking
  • Slife – similar to RescueTime in that it gathers statistics about computer usage, but data is primarily kept locally rather than “in the cloud”
  • SmartDesktop – So imagine your computer knew what was contextually relevant no matter what you were doing on it.  Yeah, they’ve got that covered. (Private Beta)
  • Seriosity – an economics-based approach to email management whereby one attaches virtual currency to their messages
  • ActionBase – Turns Outlook into a database of sorts for knowledge management and wiki-like email correspondence
  • Talk2Us – a crazy voice recognition manage-your-life software that’s in private beta
  • ClearContext – Helps you to better identify important information, group relevant items together, and generally have a better workflow within Outlook
  • Permessa –Enterprise unified messaging for performance and compliance monitoring


IORG is a group to watch, and one that I’ll happily stay involved with.  I know I have a long way to go before I can completely understand the needs of my team and my clients, but I’ll be working with the people I met and trying to utilize many of the tips and applications above.

Any other good solutions to Information Overload?  Did I miss something at this event that  you’d like to share?

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17 Responses to “Information overload solutions from a conference dedicated to the topic”

5 Trackbacks

  1. Slife Labs Blog » Blog Archive » Dealing with Information Overload
  2. – Productivity studies and information overload: should we listen to the hype?
  3. Online Marketing Blog » Blog Archive » Feeling overloaded?
  4. – Information Overload: an invitation and some new videos
  5. Jared Goralnick’s report from the inaugural Information Overload conference | Context Discovery


  1. Clay

    Wow Jared, that software list is the best productivity software list I’ve seen in a long time, with products I’m actually interested in. If you reviewed all those products and then recommended one I’d probably buy it in about 15 minutes. Just an affiliate idea :-).

    Thanks for this great stuff.

  2. Jonathan Spira

    Jared, glad you enjoyed the conference. Great summary btw!

    One point of clarification: at you reference from the New York Times is actually from Basex (although they created the graphics around it).
    — Note from Jared: addressed in post for further clarity.

  3. Jared Goralnick

    Thanks, Clay! I do hope to have time to review those products and others here…with or without any affiliate credit ;-). I’m glad this proved helpful to you!

    Jonathan, it was great meeting you there, thanks for the comment.

  4. Neal Goldman

    Information overload is definitely a problem that’s here to stay, and it’s not just email. The plethora of news sites, social sites to keep up with what others are doing, RSS feeds, twitter and friendfeed feeds make it all overwhelming.

    We here at Eluma have been working on that problem for several years, and we have a free solution for anyone who wants to manage all their web stuff in one place. Here’s the link. We’d be interested to hear what you think.

  5. Henry Lewkowicz

    Since I could not attend the conference your report is very welcome. With respect to tools that can be added to reducing information overload I believe that summaries a great way to filtering information and provide the essence without the secondary details. We at Context Discovery have been working on that very problem. If anybody would like to try out instant summarization of web pages, email, and documents please try Context Organizer (

    And if you do, we’d be very grateful to hear what you think.

  6. Edison Thomaz

    Excellent post, Jared. It was nice meeting you in NYC. I wrote a small post in the Slife Labs Blog and I am linking to your story here, since you did such a good job recapping the day.

  7. Cristos Lianides-Chin

    I second Edison — great job summing up the IORG conference. It was also great seeing you at PodCamp Boston 3 over the weekend. I’m curious to get your opinion on Instant Messaging — I thought it was largely overlooked at IORG, even though it can help address the email glut. What are your thoughts?

  8. gregorylent

    good there are organizational and technical things that help with this situation. but they are only partial solutions.

    it is a problem of awareness, and that is a problem behind the eyes, not out in front or on the screen.

    it is as much about how you deal with your thoughts as it is about the stuff in your inbox.

    the value of a quiet mind in dealing with life and with information cannot be overestimated, because if the mind is really quiet, anybody can deal with any amount of anything.

    intuition is another help, simply knowing what is important, and what is not, and being free of the fear that you might miss something.

  9. Tom Godfrey

    Jared –

    Thank you for posting your observations from the Information Overload Conference. I would have like to have attended but could not make it work in the schedule. I’ve been following Basex and their research on this matter for a while and it looks like the conference really delivered some value. Great to be able to get a glimpse at the highlights from your report. It’s really appreciated.

  10. Andy


    Great meeting you at IORG and thanks for the mention of Talk2Us. I only wish we were in public beta so everyone could experience it today. To give a bit more info on us:

    Talk2Us gives you control back over your communications by providing context for all inbound calls (leave behind your dumb VM) where an innovative voice driven digital assistant collects what someone is calling about and the priority. You then get to know a lot more about the call and caller before you have to talk with them. You also get much more control then simply answer/ignore by being able to set a callback and a time, voice record an answer their question, enter their item as a to-do, talk to them, or defer it. You can do all this via voice or IM and in the future we’ll have deeper hooks into email to stem overload, prioritize, and move conversations to the appropriate place. Voice conversations are still the best conversations so get the control and flexibility you have online with Talk2Us.

    If this sounds interesting, please go to our site ( and put yourself on our beta list. We’re launching a public beta this fall and would love to have productivity minded people use the system and give us feedback.

    CEO Talk2Us

  11. maxpiut

    Hi guys,

    just want to introduce myself on, hope this is the right category for that purpose.


  12. Brian Timesheet software Logan

    Excellent list! Some great software in there! I will try some for sure!

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