Information Overload is a Myth

A search for the term “information overload” in Google returns 3.68 million results, the second of which is a good definition of the problem: “exposure to or provision of too much information or data.” Wikipedia expands on the issue by defining it as “…a term used to describe the difficulty of understanding an issue and effectively making decisions when one has too much information about that issue. Generally, the term is associated with the excessive quantity of daily information.”

While the definitions are accurate, the fundamental issue with information overload is not really a problem with having too much information. Instead, it’s that we don’t have information curated in such a way as to present a limited set of the right information. For example, when I type “who starred in the movie grand prix” into Google, the first thing that shows up are photos of the cast. Google also provided many pages of additional search results, but curated a limited set of options that were most relevant to my inquiry, and it was the first one that satisfied that query. So, if Google had returned 300,000 other links and images, I would not have been overloaded with information because I could disregard everything but the right answer presented to me at the top of the list.

Similarly, if I need to find an email I sent to a prospect three days ago, does it matter if I have 36,745 emails in my inbox if my search returns just the email I was seeking? Not really.

So, what we’re really talking about with information overload is a lack of good search and good curation, which often begins with inadequate archiving of the right information. In the workplace, that lack of good search, curation and archiving manifests itself in a number of ways, most notably in the amount of time that employees spend searching for information. For example, a Software Advice survey found that some employees spend at least six hours per week searching for paper documents. A McKinsey report discovered that employees spend an average of 9.3 hours per week searching and gathering information. When it comes to information that is even more difficult to find, such as the job and client experience of my fellow employees that I might bring to bear on solving a problem, it may take even longer to find this information, if I can find it at all. Add to this the problem of information held in various silos across the enterprise and the situation becomes untenable, leading to regulatory, legal and employee productivity problems of various types.

Consequently, information overload really is not a thing — but inadequate search, curation and archiving definitely is.

Do We Suffer from Email Information Overload?

Is “information overload” a problem in email? Yes:

  • Brits (and, presumably, most every other information-focused worker) spend 36 days each work year composing emails.
  • Seventy-two percent of email users experience “some”, “quite a bit” or “a great deal” of information overload in email according to a current study being conducted by Osterman Research. Plus, the survey is discovering that 50% of respondents are using email more than they were 12 months ago, and that only 3% are using it less.

Add to this the information overload we experience in other areas: in 2013, broadcast networks showed an average of 14 minutes 15 seconds of commercials during each of the five hours of television we watch each day; cable networks showed 15 minutes 38 seconds. Twenty-eight percent (1.72 hours) of all time spent online is focused on social media. The average user sees 1,707 banner ads per month. The typical mobile user spends 90 minutes per day on his or her phone.

What’s the problem with information overload in just email, let alone in other areas?

  • We end up missing important messages. Most of us have experienced a situation in which we missed an important email from a co-worker, customer, prospect or someone else simply because it got lost in the flood of emails with which we must contend on a daily basis.
  • We miss deadlines. Missing emails means that we miss meetings, customer deadlines and other time-sensitive events.
  • Potentially, we can lose revenue. If a customer or prospect asks a question and we either don’t answer or answer in a timely way, that can result in lost business opportunities and damage to our personal and/or corporate reputation.

So, we have two primary issues with which to contend:

  • We need to manage our information management more effectively. We deal with enormous amounts of information – so much so that we simply cannot process all of it effectively. While some may put a pleasant spin on this overload (for example, some have referred to “information overload” as “information abundance”), the fact is that we have only a fixed amount of time each day and a fixed amount of attention we can devote to important content. Much of what we encounter, particularly from social media, for example, is more drivel than meaningful information, and so placing personal limits on what we pay attention to is essential.
  • Perhaps more realistically, however, we need better tools to help us manage information more efficiently and effectively. This is particularly true for email, given that the typical information worker spends about 150 minutes per day doing work in their email system. Many vendors have attempted to manage this overload with varying degrees of success, but some of the newer tools are making good headway in actually doing something about information overload.

In short, the amount of information is growing, but the time and attention we can devote to it is not – we need better tools, particularly email tools, to address this growing mismatch.