Productivity studies and information overload: should we listen to the hype?

July 28, 2008 by Jared Goralnick

Research window image Study after study comes out “proving” how overloaded we are with information.  I’ve added fuel to that fire here, for sure.

Gina Trapani, Editor of Lifehacker and friend, took a step back and asked for a reality check.  Here’s my take on how we should apply this “data” about our productivity.

I recommend taking a look at her article.  I agree that many productivity studies may be created with an existing goal in mind: to illustrate that "’the internet is destroying your life!’" or "’you need to buy this product.’"  She further holds that personal productivity is very much personal and that we all ought to take new productivity systems, products, and recommendations with a grain of salt.  I agree here, too: my approaches may work for me but they’re no panacea for others.

All of this is healthy skepticism.  We need to be reminded of this as we struggle to apply others’ lessons to our own practices.  I need to remind my own readers of this more often.  Consider Getting Things Done: there are many valuable lessons in the book but the specifics have been adapted and applied in many different ways.

However, I take issue with the connection Gina draws here:

The longer I do this, the more I suspect that a good part of the "information overload" story is a myth cooked up by folks who don’t know how to use the internet well in order to demonize something they don’t understand. I get more done via email and surfing the web than my parents ever did using phones and libraries, even when I’m having a bad day and switch to my email application the moment I see a new message notification.

Here she connects productivity studies with the point that our technology furthers our productivity.  I’ll be the first to agree that the present workforce is able to accomplish so much more due to technology.  But I don’t think that relates to whether or not we’re effectively managing information that comes through our computers…or whether there’s a cost associated with it.

Biased or not, productivity studies seem to follow a logic like this:

  1. We need to use email, cell-phones, the web, and other technologies: they enable us to communicate, answer questions, and are necessary to perform our job functions
  2. The breadth and depth of these channels is large/growing/overwhelming/distracting
  3. Some of this data is irrelevant or unnecessary (or some other problem)
  4. Processing irrelevant or unnecessary information (or some other problem) takes time
  5. Due to #3, it’s important to pay attention to the cost associated with #4

Regardless of the value of these newer information sources (#1), there’s still a cost associated with processing it (assuming you agree with some of the study’s findings).

I don’t think businesses (or even individuals) are interested in comparing how their productivity now compares with twenty years ago.  (Though it might make us feel a bit better!)  The purpose behind these studies is pinpointing what we often don’t realize—just how great the cost is for the inadequacies in our current approaches to managing information.

There’s a very real need for better tools and techniques.  The studies help to illustrate those points to people who need a more tangible reason for investing their time or money in these tools and techniques.

It’s wise to be skeptical of studies and to look at their funding sources.  Heck, I’m biased in just writing this article.  But as someone who’s out there dealing with a business community that’s interest is more in the bottom line than tinkering with technology or investing in training, I think the studies bring attention to the gravity of their inaction.  (Walk into corporate America and observe people, and you’ll see how overwhelmed and unready they are.)  This IS a problem, and spreading its awareness will help make a change.

(Maybe that change is public education in processing digital information; maybe it’s businesses investing in employee training; maybe it’s getting people to use or developers to build tools that help manage this data.  More specific solutions discussed here.)

I know that Gina wasn’t just disregarding studies’ findings.  I just want to present an opposing opinion to applaud the media attention and further research related to “information overload.”

There is a cost to not improving the way we work with information.  Whether a study gets that point across or whether we see it firsthand, I’m glad people are turning to Lifehacker, GTD, and software for solutions.  I agree with Gina that we need to be healthy skeptics over what we listen to, but I’m also hoping some of these studies’ findings will sink in…if that’ll help to make a change.

I’ve added a little note in the comments about why I wrote this…

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7 Responses to “Productivity studies and information overload: should we listen to the hype?”

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  1. Jared Goralnick

    It’s not fun for me to write a post that confronts an article by someone I really respect. So I just want to point out that my purpose in writing this is twofold:

    1. I want to pass along the word that we need to be careful about what productivity data or advice we consider
    2. I also want to point out that when we believe in this stuff, there’s a lot of value in spreading the information, especially the empirical stuff (i.e., the studies) that helps others to make decisions

    The funny thing is that the empirical stuff probably doesn’t matter that much to people like me since I believe there’s a problem and have already taken actions at solving it. But the studies help to make some people (and many businesses) take the problem seriously. Thus to the extent that I can support the studies (that I believe in) and help spread the word, I want to do so :-).

  2. Dan Markovitz

    Well-said and thoughtfully argued, Jared. There *is* a problem — I see it every time I visit a company and see the overwhelmed, stressed-out, and frustrated people who are simply trying to keep up with their work.

    Eliminating technology and going back to chiseling cuneiform into clay tablets isn’t the answer. But then, neither is spending 20% of your day on Twitter.

  3. Victoria Pickering

    Jared -
    I agree with both you and Gina, and don’t find the positions all that different. I’d argue that the $700 billion cost of lost efficiency is misleading for a number of reasons – because humans aren’t ever going to enjoy moving all the way toward efficiency, because many of the studies are biased or started with pre-suppositions, and because measuring the same cost in the pre-internet era would have shown lost-efficiency costs that were much much higher.
    That said, though, it really isn’t relevant how high the cost is or how much better/worse than the past. What is relevant is the great benefit for companies, government, and people in becoming more efficient – direct cost savings, indirect benefits of stress reduction, etc. – and the techniques and perspective that you and others are bringing to the problem are highly useful – sometimes quantifiably and pretty much always qualitatively useful.

  4. Jake Brewer

    While I can certainly see Gina’s perspective, there is little doubt that there is indeed a problem, and I appreciate your thoughtful perspective as always, Jared.

    In addition to the strategies you often provide, I’m reminded in reading through this post of something that Robert Scoble said in response to a question about dealing with information overload. While I don’t know the exact quote his response was to the effect of, “I’m not smarter about how I manage more information, I’m just smarter about my network.”

    I really took that to heart, and it’s one of the things that’s helped me. Finding those people and resources that are consistently valuable (like Technotheory for instance :) and sticking to them (or adding/editing/deleting when necessary) helps to manage not only what information you’re getting, but also what “distractions” – which aren’t always bad!

  5. Stever Robbins

    Let’s assume that net-net, we’re more productive due to all our information technology. So what? Economic statistics suggest that since the 1970s, productivity has soared, while the bottom 90% of our incomes have remained flat in real-dollar terms. If the gains aren’t flowing to us, why do we even care?

    Presumably, we care because we enjoy life better when we’re being more productive. But if we FEEL more stressed and overworked due to the amount of information we have to sift through, there go the psychic effects from our increased productivity. So now we’re not seeing the dollars and we’re not seeing any emotional benefit. In short, we’re more productive, but we’re not as happy.

    I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to lay on my deathbed and say, “What a fulfilling life! I was 2.5% more productive thanks to my Blackberry, Outlook, Web-enabled services, iPhone, and Twitter.” I want to say, “I was happy, loved great people and was loved in return, and spent my life doing things I felt were meaningful.”

    Perhaps to Gina, getting more done than her parents is the purpose of life. In that case, I wish her well. It sounds like she’s succeeding. But to me, and to many of my friends, information is a problem because it FEELS like a problem, regardless of what studies show or don’t show about my so-called productivity.

  6. Jared Goralnick

    Thank you all so much for the thoughtful comments. I guess there’s some consensus that there is a problem and that the studies have helped to document it, accurately or not.

    To Stever’s point I’d just like to point out a book that definitely speaks to some of the current “situation,” it’s by Gregg Easterbrook and called The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. I’m a fan of it, but the title kind of sums it up.

    So many things are supposedly helping our lives, but at least in the States there is a high level of stress and general malaise. I’m hoping to crack not just the productivity nut, but the happiness one. That’s the bigger picture and why I changed the caption of this blog to “You want to be happy and productive…”

    So the point that all this brings up is whether it matters what productivity studies show. They may incidentally show that we’re darn productive, but they raise the point that we’re also overwhelmed and unprepared. I only hope that in whatever solutions people come up with that they’re not just bandaids that leave room for more work. Instead I hope people will recognize the new options and take a minute to relax.

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