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Drowning in Information? You're Not Alone

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"Celebrate" Information Overload Awareness Day: August 12

The Information Age has brought with it many advances which have become part of everyday life, including the Web and mobile phones, not to mention e-mail, text and instant messaging, and social networks. While there are many benefits to having these tools and modes of communication, they also bring with them a costly side effect: the problem of information overload.

Simply put, the tools and technologies we now take for granted allow us to create content faster than ever before and permit us to share it with an unlimited number of people, many of whom may be unknown to us. Almost every generation has had access to more information than the one preceding it. Today we create more content in a day than the entire population of the planet could possibly consume in a month.

Looking ahead, by 2012, each of us will receive hundreds of messages via e-mail, SMS, IM, and social networks each and every day. That is on top of the amount of content we will be expected to consume from news and information Web sites, our friends, our work, and other sources.

The result? In a society that places increasing value on information, we will have more of it and less and less time to digest it. This in turn will result in an inability both to manage the flow of information and to find what we are looking for, without becoming overwhelmed.

To see the problems that can result from information overload, one need look no further than the reaction of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) this past January when it discovered that the outgoing Bush Administration would be turning over ca. 100 terabytes of information. That is 10 times the amount the Clinton Administration generated in the same amount of time. To deal with the impending flood of content, NARA launched an "emergency plan" to deal with the incoming data. And this is an agency whose sole raison d'être is to keep records.

Information overload describes an excess of information that results in the loss of ability to make decisions, process information, generate ideas, and prioritize and complete tasks. It renders us unable to absorb all of the information being thrust at us and some of what we miss may very well be useful or important.

Individuals as well as organizations of all shapes and sizes have already been significantly impacted by information overload: the problem costs the U.S. economy $900 billion per year in lower productivity and throttled innovation.

Information Overload also causes health problems. According to a recent Basex survey, 35% of knowledge workers experience work-related back and/or neck pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, eye strain, headaches, or stress-related symptoms traceable back to information overload.

To keep up with all of the information we have to digest, we try to stay connected to information sources. This means not only checking e-mail while on vacation (vacationers using smartphones on ski gondolas is not an uncommon sight) but taking more and more work home with us. In fact, we don't physically carry it home -- it simply follows us.

As a result, the work-life balance for many knowledge workers has become somewhat lopsided (hint: work is winning). Many people don't even realize this is happening to them as the encroachment is somewhat subtle.

Technology is a wonderful enabler. Since we work in teams which often transcend borders and time zones, e-mail and meeting tools enable us to connect with colleagues when needed. Smartphones and netbooks allow us to continue working on projects when we ostensibly are at leisure (count the number of parents at children's sports matches, for example, who are working). Employers graciously give employees these tools because they effectively stretch the workday into something never ends.

We ourselves are somewhat to blame. Our increased need for instant gratification (perhaps fueled by the founding of Fedex, which introduced overnight delivery in 1973) causes us to interrupt others when we don't get an immediate answer to an e-mail. How many times have you received an instant message or phone call asking "did you get the e-mail I just sent?" We act as if everything we are doing is both urgent and important; lending a false sense of importance to our mission that causes us to interrupt others with impunity. Clearly what we are doing is far more important and urgent than what others could possibly be doing.

Given all this, whether sitting at a desk in the office, in a conference room, in one's home office, or with a client, the likelihood of being able to complete a task without interruption is nil. In fact, if you've made it this far in the article, congratulations.

If you are reading this and wondering, "Well, what does this have to do with me?", I suggest you watch the short movie I just produced about information overload. For the movie, I interviewed senior executives at companies large and small, asking a very simple question: "How does information overload impact you?" What they had to say shows the extent to which information overload has become a problem that no one is immune to.

If you want to find out more about what you can do about information overload, both for yourself as well as for your place of work, the Information Overload Awareness Day Inaugural Event, which takes place on the Web on August 12 on the Web, is a good place to start. The first 15 readers to register can attend the Inaugural Event at no charge simply by pledging not to multitask or interrupt colleagues during the event. Register using the code "HuffingtonPledge" and the $50 fee will be automatically waived.

Learn what you can do right now to lessen information overload: "Managing Information Overload: 10 Tips for Survival in an Information Age."