The problem is not information overload, by David Allen
E-mail overload has gotten a lot of press lately – the quantity, the distraction it creates, and our inability to do much about it. There was even a recent debate in a global newspaper between readers voting for keeping e-mail at zero vs. those who use the digital in-basket as a giant library keeping useful information at hand with no concern for the volume. The issue is tied closely with the popular concern about our always-on culture – that we seem to never unhook from the incessant demands of being in touch, put upon us by our clients, our bosses and ourselves.
What’s the problem? There is one, but not the one that’s been popularized. “Information overload” has been the commonly identified culprit, coupled with universal access. That gives the picture of a mounting pile of stuff under which we are constantly and increasingly buried. And if incessant information bombardment is what we are trying to deal with, then help shows up as attempts to filter, sort and organize it faster and faster so we can feel in control of it.
But information overload isn’t the problem. If it was, you’d walk into a library and die. The first time you connected to the Web, you’d blow up, and merely browsing a newspaper would make you a nervous wreck. Actually, a plethora of information is relaxing. One reason a stroll in the woods can be so calming is because of the quantity and variety of visual and auditory input. In an environment of too little information, we get really uncomfortable. Sensory deprivation is unsettling.
And speaking of “always on,” what’s new and problematic about that? Someone estimated that we have fifty thousand thoughts a day. What are three hundred e-mails, compared to the assault of our own self-talk machine-gun brain?
So, why isn’t lots of e-mail experienced as a soothing event, like a walk in nature? Why hasn’t it been accepted as part of our ordinary reality, like thinking all the time, as we do? One simple reason: each one of those e-mails might mean something. The operant word in this problem is “might.” If the meaning of an e-mail were already clear, we would still have a lot to deal with, but it would be much easier. E-mail is not just news – it’s potentially relevant news. It’s not just communication – it’s communication that I might possibly need or want, about which I might need or want to do something. It is potentially important, potentially relevant. And it’s the necessity to determine that relevance that creates the sense of overwhelm.
When we walk through the woods we’re bombarded with information. But only so much has latent importance. What we notice tends to be either of a non-essential and soothing variety, or something very discrete that we’re clearly attuned to. Few people avoid the woods because they feel overwhelmed with the information. Sure, there can be surprises. But when the woods were our life, processing our stuff was easier. Snake rattles, berries to eat, animal tracks, thunder, and poison oak constituted the extent of meaningful input on any workaday Thursday. And when we came back out of the woods, we could get closure on all of that with little additional effort. Psychic RAM probably stayed pretty clear. We had the luxury of communing with ourselves and the subtler signs and signals of our universe, from a clearer space.
Now we’re overloaded – not with information, but with meaning to be mined. So the solution is not about slicing and dicing and reorganizing data – it’s about how quickly and discretely we can decide its specific meaning to us. Is it actionable? If not, is it trash, is it to be stored for later action, or is it reference? If it is actionable, what’s the next action? And what outcome, if any, should I now be committed to? And how does all of that fit within the total inventory of those things that I have collected to date, and which are still potentially meaningful?
The issues about e-mail are not whether I should keep them in my in-basket or file them. That’s just rearranging incomplete piles of unclear stuff. It’s what does each of them mean to me? Do I still need to read it and respond? And by when, exactly, against all the others I still need to deal with? Or just file it as reference? Or dump it? As common-sense as those distinctions might be, they implicitly require us to know what we’re doing and where we’re going. And that’s as easy as, well, knowing who we are and our purpose in the universe (or some derivative version of those eternal questions). Too many things in our in-baskets mean too many things that mean something about which we need to decide the meaning.
The e-mail beast is out of the barn, and it’s going to be nearly impossible to shove it back in. The natural selection of information our minds would do in the woods kept the decisions about meaningfulness to manageable levels, but e-mail invades through to a more intimate room in our psyche. Every one of them might contain a rattle, a berry, a deer track, or thunder.
The good news about the e-mail phenomenon, aside from all the marvels of virtual communication and connectivity with a global community, is that it’s forcing the average professional to grapple with the essential challenge of knowledge work: defining what that work is. That answer is elusive, and morphs frequently. And most of us weren’t taught how to get fast and comfortable with clarifying meaning and priority triage. It can be learned and practiced, as we have discovered in synthesizing the best practices of work flow. And it takes time and energy that many people still don’t acknowledge and accept into their lifestyle logistics. But we have to mature the conversation about e-mail from simple volume-of-stuff thinking, which views the problem as quantifiable, to the more sophisticated issue about how to learn to make rapid front-end decisions about what bright baubles NOT to follow, though they’re in our face.
An old maxim: if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do. What they should have added is “…and everything coming at you will seem unclear, overwhelming, and a pain in the ass.”
This article originally appeared in a 2006 edition David Allen’s newsletter, Productive Living (formerly known as Productivity Principles.) Click here to subscribe–it’s free. Unsubscribe at any time.
Have this problem, I can help.