Welcome to the overload

We all have stories. We repeat them as though they come from a war fought in some distant land. They are our badges of honour and show our mettle, our fortitude, our resilience.

“I came back from two weeks of vacation and had 1,224 e-mails in my inbox,” says one suit, not even trying to hide his braggadocio.

“Hell, that’s nothing. I had 806 e-mails and 147 voice mails and I was only gone a week,” says the other.

Are these the stories of the truly honourable or the complaints of a new generation of informationally-overloaded workers? Are things really that bad or are we just going through the terrible twos, dealing with a plethora of new communication technologies that all just happened to have fallen in our laps at the same time.

If it is not an overload of e-mail that is making your day start out on the wrong foot, then it is a dozen “urgent” voice mail messages, faxes, pages, cell calls or – heaven forbid – plain old mail waiting your attention. You are being dragged in several directions, but only capable of moving in one.

You are suffering from a bad case of information overload.

The human brain is a funny thing. It has become increasingly refined over the years, allowing us to filter information in a surprisingly effective manner. Every day we are bombarded with hundreds, if not thousands, of advertisements and yet we subconsciously delete them with incredible efficacy. Try to remember any ads you saw on the way to work — there were hundreds but your brain deleted the vast majority as inconsequential, unimportant or just plain garbage.

But this bombardment has seeped into our workplace. It used to be our safe haven, our fortress. There was a secretary at the door screening visitors, mail and calls. But don’t look back at those days with forlorn eyes, for they are never coming back.

Welcome to the new millennia, where everyone has access to everyone else and they darn well make use of it.

“The main difference now is that we are getting information thrust at us, whereas before we used to go and find it,” said Gaylen Duncan, president of ITAC in Toronto.

“We certainly have far more information coming at us than we had, say 10 years ago,” agreed Faye West in Edmonton, president of the Canadian Information Processing Society.

But is it really overload?

“It is not that it is overload,” Duncan continued. “We are actually dialoguing with many, many more people per day than we ever did before, but I don’t think we are spending more time doing it.

“The difference is, I now have to carry on 60 or 70 conversations in the course of an hour when I am doing e-mail, whereas I used to have to carry on only one or two. There is no doubt that if I spend two or three hours doing e-mail and I stand up from the desk I am pooped, I have had my brain cover maybe 100 different subjects in those two hours, whereas in the past I would have spent much longer on one or two subjects,” he said.

“So that is not an overload issue, it is just that we are handling more files because we have the technology to process those files faster.”

And that is essentially the crux of the problem. Not more information, but disparate information. We may think that we are suffering from information overload but in reality it is more akin to disparate-information overload.

Ken Hanley, a project manager with KPMG in Calgary, added another angle. He said there is also schedule overload that compounds the problem. “[ A schedule overload] allows us zero flexibility to handle uncertain events when they arise,” he explained.

“I have at the moment in my calendar between 50 and 55 hours of work this week,” he said. When your plate is full, any variation to your scheduling can wreak havoc.

E-mail, number one on the hit list

Not surprisingly, e-mail causes most complaints. For all the benefit it provides, it certainly gets people’s hackles up.

“I quite honestly believe that there are people who have not quite figured out that they can source a lot more e-mail than other people can handle,” said Leslie Oliver, professor of computer science at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S.

Most of the problems have to do with people learning a new social etiquette, and Oliver’s beef comes under this umbrella.

“I think that there is an etiquette that evolves for any communications that we use,” West said. “As a child sitting at the dinner table [you] didn’t answer the telephone because you don’t phone at dinner time…so you don’t send e-mails to everybody just because you can,” she explained. [These are] the rules of life that people haven’t learned yet, haven’t even developed yet because the technology is so new and changing so fast,” she added.

So people just spew out e-mail because it is easy and they are either too lazy or too thoughtless (or both) to think about the person on the other end. “I certainly get a lot of it that is just garbage to be deleted. The amount of garbage that shows up in terms of e-mail is, I think, outpacing the growth of anything else that I receive by a long shot,” West said.

“I suspect that because it is easy, people send you things that you didn’t need to know…so more people are getting more information that is quite possibly irrelevant to them,” she added.

The key is learning to use the new toy judiciously.

“People on the sending side need to recognize when they shouldn’t send messages,” said Kaitlin Duck Sherwood, author of Overcome E-mail Overload.

She added that if there was no learning curve for e-mail etiquette then she would not have had to write her book in the first place. “What I want is the exception. Don’t tell me that you met all of your goals, I want to know if you missed your goals,” ITAC’s Duncan added.

“I wish Reply to All was three clicks and closing [down] the computer was one,” he cited as one of his pet peeves on the ease of bombarding dozens with unimportant information.

To add fuel to the e-mail fire, the purveyors of technology are pushing wireless e-mail into the fray. They are pulling at your heart strings to make you feel like you need the technology. There is a television ad showing a guy in a boring meeting who accesses his wireless e-mail to find out that his kids won the soccer game. Hey buddy, if you are suffering from information overload, maybe some of it is self-inflicted.

CIPS’ West had wireless e-mail for a while.

“There are people who would have you believe you need this. It was fun but I didn’t think it needed it,” she said. “I don’t need instantaneous e-mail, and yet it is available and there are lots of people out there who do feel they can’t get along without it. If you need to get hold of me right now, do it by cell phone – you don’t need to send me an e-mail,” she said.

“We do things because we can, not because we need to,” she explained. “Wireless e-mail is a technology that we can create, so we have created it. Do we need it? I don’t know [but] I kind of doubt it.”

not now, i am busy

In the 1960s the Rolling Stones recorded a song called “Time Is On My Side.” Back then, that may very well have been true, but you are dreaming if you think we live in that era anymore.

“The instantaneous nature of communication now has eliminated what would otherwise be a natural filter,” KPMG’s Hanley explained.

Since an e-mail arrives at its destination in minutes (at most), people have started to figure the response should be equally as prompt.

“Now instant response is expected and a lot of us are still learning what ‘instant response’ really means,” Duncan said.

When an e-mail doesn’t get the desired quick response, the next one is flagged like a Zellers red light special, replete with red exclamation marks, capital letters and a subject line sounding like the announcement of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“We have lost our ability to distinguish. A first class letter used to mean something…well, now everything comes in that way,” Hanley said.

“There are too many options to fire information in…[it becomes] difficult to focus on what is important vs. what is urgent. Information overload has tended to blur the distinction between the two,” he continued.

Hanley also doesn’t like some of the assumptions made by today’s employees about the number of days in a work week. “It used to be people would apologize profusely about contacting you on the weekend, now they just assume it is OK,” he said.

let’s focus on the positive

“The introduction of technology in all of its forms has lead to increased productivity in the work force,” Duncan said.

He even cites American federal reserve board chairman Alan Greenspan as a recent convert. Earlier this year Greenspan finally admitted that a large percentage of the growth in the American economy is attributable to the growth in use of technology, Duncan said.

“Our studies are that e-mail, on average, is definitely increasing productivity,” said David Ferris, president of Ferris Research Inc. in San Francisco. “It is increasing it by approximately 20 per cent for the average office worker, which is very substantial.” In the cases of high communicators, such as sales people, as much as a 40 per cent increase in productivity can be measured, he added.

“People are rightly frustrated by the amount of e-mail that they get, but they should separate that from how it is effecting productivity,” he explained.

Author Sherwood sees another, almost cultural, advantage.

“E-mail does flatten (corporate) hierarchy,” she said. “Whereas you might not be willing to speak up in a meeting with the company president, you might be willing to send him or her an e-mail.”

She also said there are some fundamental misconceptions about how e-mail really affects our productivity.

“What isn’t really mentioned is that e-mail takes the place of a lot of other communication that used to be face-to-face, so there is some trade-off,” she explained. “The problem people have isn’t with e-mail that replaces face-to-face conversations – it is e-mail that is new and different.”

Both e-mail and voice mail also offer the complete asynchronous communication loop.

Today employees contact and work with people all over the globe, and not everyone is even awake when you want to talk to them. If you have a question you call, get voice mail, leave a message and they respond via a communication method of their choosing. The complete information transaction can occur without human contact. In reality it is much like days gone by when the primary means of long distance communication was letters. Only now it is a whole lot faster.

“[Technology] probably allows me to do more things in my life,” West explained. “I can pick up my voice mail at airports and can check e-mail when I am travelling, I can work on the plane because I have the laptop and I don’t feel like I am missing out on my life, though I am coping with two jobs at the same time.”

But even the converted agree specific issues arise when overload becomes a problem. Ferris says one of the problems with e-mail overload is that managers are often not in control. “They are not responding in a timely way. If you need your boss to sign off on something quickly but his in tray has over 200 items, it may be overlooked and (he) may not get back to you in time. So he is now out of control,” he explained.

Many believe e-mail filters are the solution, while others say they are of little help. Individuals have to make a personal decision as to whether filters are effective for their specific e-mail usage.

“Personally, I don’t like filters…because you are setting them up for what you are interested in now. How do you learn new things? Because you have blocked out all of the new stuff,” West said.

“It got to the point that it wasn’t worth the time to go in and set the [filters] because it is quicker to delete. My eye recognizes it as being trash without really even reading them.”

careful, that smell is you burning out

“We are going to have to get better at focusing on fewer things. We are going to have to learn to focus on the things that genuinely add value,” Hanley said. “Over a long time [our current pace] just isn’t sustainable.

“The communications technologies have all advanced but fundamentally the wet ware between our ears – that is set to process those things – is not evolving that fast.

“This is the problem with technology, as powerful as it is – it hasn’t been humanized enough…in that the [technologies] don’t come at us in the form or speed or volume to which we are best suited to operate,” Hanley added.

He said burnout rates are higher than they used to be and that something has to give. “There are enough benefits that you don’t want it to go away but we are going to have to set expectations…we are going to have to learn that [immediacy] is an unreal expectation.”

Guidelines for improving e-mail habits

1. Avoid being alerted when new e-mail arrives. It’s disruptive.

2. Try to handle a message only once, then delete or file it once it has been read.

3. Discourage others from sending personal e-mail to your corporate account.

4. If you get behind, aim to respond to the most current e-mail first, then earlier messages as time permits.

5. Long informational messages might not require a reply, but take time and effort to read. These should be put in a separate Night-time Reading folder.

6. If your recipient might be dialling in for messages, try to post large attachments – 1MB or more – to Web sites or file servers.

7. Always put a suitable description in Subject lines.

8. Don’t use High Priority unless the message really is important.

9. Consider whether a given message is truly relevant and useful for

recipients, including those you are thinking about CCing or BCCing.

10. Avoid forwarding jokes, irrelevant spam, chain letters or other non-business e-mail. If you want to forward personal information, try to do it to someone’s personal mailbox rather than their corporate mailbox.

11. Use Reply to All only very judiciously and not at all in auto responseswhen you are out of the office.

12. Minimize subscribing to mailing lists and list servers.

13. Do not feel that every e-mail requires a response. Avoid cordial responses and back and forth replies. If mail you send requires a response, say so.

14. Encourage users to stop writing long soliloquies. They should normally get straight to the point.

Source: Ferris Research Inc.

“We do things because we can, not because we need to.”

– West

“We are going to have to get better at focusing on fewer things. We are going to have to learn to focus on the things that genuinely add value.”

– Hanley