Endless emails, texts, calls, reports, and a tidal wave of information is creating an environment of “information overload” for everyone from C-suite leaders to their front line staff. Experts say it is reducing creativity, hampering productivity, and negatively impacting workflow. Executives need to recognize the problem and strive to reduce information overload not only for themselves, but also for their workforce.
The Information Overload Research Group estimates that knowledge workers waste up a fourth of their time on the job dealing with huge data streams, costing the economy more than $990 billion per year. Gloria Mark, informatics professor at the University of California, Irvine, says in an article at NPR that information overload creates a “self-perpetuating cycle” where we crave even more information.
This can cause not only a loss in productivity but headaches and even insomnia. It creates an environment where interruptions become the norm, constantly reducing concentration and creating stress. “People get into a habit—or they’re even conditioned, if you will—to be interrupted so that their attention can’t last for any particular length of time,” Mark says. “If they’re not interrupted by an external source, then they self-interrupt.”
Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield said in an article at Bloomberg that infinite free communications and message addiction is a form of “cognitive diabetes” that will take more than a generation to sort itself out.
The technology and constant flow of data often causes us to engage in multitasking, according to an article at McKinsey Quarterly. Yet numerous studies have shown that multitasking actually reduces productivity. Leaders need to recognize the problems with multitasking and aim to reduce the practice at their organization. Constant exposure to new information slows us down, reduces focus, makes us anxious and is addictive. Second, leaders must establish enormous self discipline and find time to focus, filter out the unimportant, forget about work. Finally, leaders must recognize that the entire organization’s productivity can be hampered by information overload and that no single person can address the issue in solution.
The McKinsey article noted that CEOs had a number of strategies for dealing with the “deluge” of information. One of the first recommendations was to create “alone time” for thinking. Bill Gross, chief investment officer at PIMCO, said he doesn’t look at any emails he doesn’t want to and doesn’t’ even carry a cell phone. Gross said some of his most productive times are when he is alone doing yoga.
Executives don’t have to go to the extent of completely disconnecting but they should schedule periods that are free of phone, email, or data disruption. Brent Assink, executive director of the San Francisco Symphony, says in the article that staff should be able to work throughout much of the day “without rapid-fire” input from the top. “If they want an immediate response, it will have to be a phone call. If they send an email, they will get a response at the end of the day,” says Assink.
C-suite leaders must also establish a good strategy for filtering out unimportant and meaningless information and technology. This starts with eliminating the idea that executives have to know or hear about everything. They should learn to delegate what information goes to their staff and is prevented from hitting their inbox, voice mail or radar. They should also strive to eliminate items of lesser importance off of their calendar.
“I only engage in depth personally on those issues that are best served by my involvement and are critical to the company’s performance, either now or in the future,” says Harrah’s Entertainment CEO Gary Loveman.