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Personal Computing: Interruption Overload

November 19, 2008 By

Email. Blogs. Texting. Online discussion groups. Instant messaging. RSS feeds. Web sites. Not to mention such "old media" sources as newsletters, journals, reports, books, newspapers, and magazines.

In this Jetsonian Tomorrowland, we're inundated with information. But information overload isn't a new phenomenon.

Nearly two millennia ago, the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, "What is the use of having countless books and libraries whose titles their owners can scarcely read through in a whole lifetime? The learner is not instructed but burdened by the mass of them."

Still, the quantity of information produced today is unprecedented. According to the study "How Much Information?" from the University of California at Berkeley, the amount of information produced in the world increases by about 30 percent every year.

The Internet is a big part of this. According the "Official Google Blog" Google achieved a milestone in 2008 by finding one trillion unique links on the Web, up from one billion in 2000.

The catch phrases shed light on the situation. We're dealing with an "exoflood" of information, forcing us into a state of "continuous partial attention" and causing "interruption overload."

The consequences aren't pretty. To try to keep up with the infoglut, we're starting our workdays earlier and ending them later -- in some cases never ending them. With the help of the ever-expanding choices of ever-cooler portable communication devices, many of us are less than blissfully connected 24/7.

As a misguided weapon against the flood, some people periodically declare "e-mail bankruptcy" by deleting all unread e-mails and starting afresh. Problem is, of course, that vital information might be in those deleted messages.

Some companies, on the other hand, have banned such communication media as instant messaging and blogging, regardless of whether it pertains to work-related issues.

To study and raise awareness about the problem, the Information Overload Research Group was recently created by interested parties from the corporate and academic worlds.

Much of the problem stems for the snippets of information that seem to constantly bombard and interrupt us. The group has put out some tips on dealing with these snippets, including:

  • Set aside time for e-mail each day to keep it from backing up.
  • Turn e-mail notification off in your e-mail program to prevent yourself from being continually interrupted as new e-mails arrive.
  • Read the entire thread of any e-mail or discussion group message before responding to ensure you're responding to the latest points made and not providing information already provided.
  • When possible send a message that's only a subject line so recipients don't have to open the e-mail, ending the subject line with , the acronym for End of Message.

The nonprofit Information Overload Research Group is supported in part by Basex Inc., a for-profit consulting firm specializing in helping to improve the productivity of "knowledge workers." Basex has put together a report titled "Information Overload: We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us."

Among the tips that are included in the report:

  • Don't e-mail someone and then immediately follow up with an instant message or phone call.
  • When possible restrict individual e-mails to a single request or theme.
  • Make sure that the subject line of any e-mail clearly reflects both the topic of the message and its urgency.
  • Read your own e-mails before sending them to make sure they will be clear to others, recognizing that typed words can often be misleading in tone and intent.
  • Don't burden colleagues with unnecessary e-mail, especially one-word replies such as "Thanks!" or "Great!" that are sent to the entire group that received the initial e-mail.
  • Be patient with an instant message that doesn't get an instant response, and make it clear when you're busy or away and can't respond immediately.
  • Supply all relevant details in any communication rather than assuming that recipients have information they don't.

Ours is an information society. It assails us, surrounds us, and demands our attention. How you deal with information can to a great extent determine your professional and personal success.

Information can lead to knowledge and knowledge to wisdom, but managing information requires some wisdom of its own.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at or

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