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Reining in the Information Deluge [Infographic]

In the first season of the IFC comedy “Portlandia,” lead character Fred Armisen gets stuck in a “technology loop,” unable to do anything because he is compulsively checking his Facebook, his Twitter, his cell phone, the latest pictures of cute puppies on the Internet, his Netflix queue … (More)

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Of course, information overload is nothing new. As the writer of Ecclesiastes admonished his readers in the 3rd century BCE, “Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” In the 17th century, Gottfried Leibniz complained about the “horrible mass of books which keeps on growing,” and in 1729 Alexander Pope spoke of “a deluge of authors cover[ing] the land.” Since information was put to paper, there’s simply been too much to read.

More information does not by itself produce better results

But as we all know, it’s not just the volume of information that’s grown, but also the speed at which it’s delivered. The morning and evening papers have given way to a news cycle where stories break across social media and online outlets in mere minutes, leaving even cable news behind.

We’ve reached a point where the channels through which news and information are delivered are almost limitless: email newsletters, live online content, web cams, constant streaming, instant messaging, RSS feeds, Twitter, etc.

This explosion of available information made possible by the Internet is amazing. But it’s simply not true that this all leads to better productivity. In fact, in many ways this information deluge produces the opposite result.

According to a study by LexisNexis, 57 percent of U.S. workers say that since the economic downturn, the amount of information they have to process has significantly increased. Another 73 percent report that search engines give them access to huge amounts of information but don’t help them prioritize their work.

And even when workers aren’t sifting through search results, they’re under a barrage of other information competing for their attention. News and updates are constantly pushed to workers over the Internet, whether they like it or not.

It’s no wonder then that workers report significant problems with information overload. We may simply not be wired to manage so much info.

A study at Temple University found too much information leads people to make stupid mistakes and bad choices due to a drop in activity in the dorsolateral PFC region of the brain. The study also found that “the brain’s emotion regions — previously held in check by the dorsolateral PFC — run as wild as toddlers on a sugar high,” causing anxiety and frustration.

Worse, information overload can be a real health concern. Psychologist have coined a term for it: Information Fatigue Syndrome (IFS). IFS causes poor concentration, diminished productivity, hurry sickness (the unneeded feeling to rush things), chronic irritability, “plugged-in” compulsion, depression and the feeling of being “burned out.”

Overloaded employees reduce productivity AND increase costs

And what do burned-out workers lead to? As any Economics 101 student can tell you, for every choice there is an opportunity cost — the cost of not doing whatever else you could be doing instead. If a worker is frozen like Fred Armisen in a technology loop, he or she is probably losing a lot in opportunity costs.

For example, 91 percent of workers in the U.S. report they discard work information without fully reading it.

The actual cost of information overload is shocking. Interruptions caused by information overload cost U.S. companies $650 billion a year. As we reported in December, time spent searching futilely on the Internet for information costs British companies more than £1,200 per employee and approximately two weeks of time a year

Managing information overload

Information overload is a growing problem, but it’s not insurmountable. Performing well under stress — like a good sports team or military unit does — just requires planning and preparation.

In an article for the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Learning Innovations Laboratory Joseph Ruff, a performance management coach, lists filtering information, queuing and delegating tasks as just a few ways to manage information overload.

Another way to help us all from tearing our collective hair out is keeping work at the workplace. Set standards for how and when work contact occurs. Keep clear rules about “offline time” at home.

But one part of the problem is information has accelerated faster than the software we use to manage it. According to the LexisNexis survey, 72 percent of U.S. workers strongly agree that they would be more productive if they didn’t have to switch back and forth between applications to get their work done. Another 52 percent say the quality of their work suffers because they can’t sort through the information they need fast enough.

At Mindjet, we’re developing the tools to help us all catch up. With products like Mindjet Action (formerly Cohuman), you can share docs, set priorities, turn e-mails into tasks, all while knowing exactly what everyone else is working on.

What tools and tactics do you use to manage information overload? More importantly, what tools would you like to see?

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