How to recover from information overload

Here is an excerpt from an article co-authored by Derek Dean and Caroline Webb for The McKinsey Quarterly (January 2011). To read the complete article, check out other resources, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Always-on, multitasking work environments are killing productivity, dampening creativity, and making us unhappy.

Source: Organization Practice

For all the benefits of the information technology and communications revolution, it has a well-known dark side: information overload and its close cousin, attention fragmentation. These scourges hit CEOs and their colleagues in the C-suite particularly hard because senior executives so badly need uninterrupted time to synthesize information from many different sources, reflect on its implications for the organization, apply judgment, make trade-offs, and arrive at good decisions.

The importance of reserving chunks of time for reflection, and the difficulty of doing so, have been themes in management writing for decades. Look no further than Peter Drucker’s 1967 classic, The Effective Executive,1 which emphasized that “most of the tasks of the executive require, for minimum effectiveness, a fairly large quantum of time.” Drucker’s solutions for fragmented executives—reserve large blocks of time on your calendar, don’t answer the phone, and return calls in short bursts once or twice a day—sound remarkably like the ones offered up by today’s time- and information-management experts.2

Yet they are devilishly difficult to implement, and getting more so all the time. Every challenge recounted by Drucker in 1967 remains today: an unceasing rhythm of daily meetings, a relentless expectation of travel to connect with customers and far-flung reaches of the organization, an inordinate number of opportunities to represent the company at dinners and events. Add to these challenges a torrent of e-mail, huge volumes of other information, and an expanding variety of means—from the ever-present telephone to blogs, tweets, and social networks—through which executives can connect with their organizations and customers, and you have a recipe for exhaustion. Many senior executives literally have two overlapping workdays: the one that is formally programmed in their diaries and the one “before, after, and in-between,” when they disjointedly attempt to grab spare moments with their laptops or smart phones, multitasking in a vain effort to keep pace with the information flowing toward them.

Better solutions exist, and they aren’t rocket science.3 What we hope to do in this article is help executives, and their organizations, by reminding them of three simple things. First, multitasking is a terrible coping mechanism. A body of scientific evidence demonstrates fairly conclusively that multitasking makes human beings less productive, less creative, and less able to make good decisions. If we want to be effective leaders, we need to stop.

Second, addressing information overload requires enormous self-discipline. A little like recovering addicts, senior executives must labor each day to keep themselves on track by applying timeless yet powerful guidelines: find time to focus, filter out the unimportant, forget about work every now and then. The holy grail, of course, is to retain the benefits of connectivity without letting it distract us too much.

Third, since senior executives’ behavior sets the tone for the organization, they have a duty to set a better example. The widespread availability of powerful communications technologies means employees now share many of the time- and attention-management challenges of their leaders. The whole organization’s productivity can now be affected by information overload, and no single person or group can address it in isolation. Resetting the culture to healthier norms is a critical new responsibility for 21st-century executives.

The perils of multitasking

We tend to believe that by doing several things at the same time we can better handle the information rushing toward us and get more done. What’s more, multitasking—interrupting one task with another—can sometimes be fun. Each vibration of our favorite high-tech e-mail device carries the promise of potential rewards. Checking it may provide a welcome distraction from more difficult and challenging tasks. It helps us feel, at least briefly, that we’ve accomplished something—even if only pruning our e-mail in-boxes. Unfortunately, current research indicates the opposite: multitasking unequivocally damages productivity.

It slows us down

The root of the problem is that our brain is best designed to focus on one task at a time. When we switch between tasks, especially complex ones, we become startlingly less efficient: in a recent study, for example, participants who completed tasks in parallel took up to 30 percent longer and made twice as many errors as those who completed the same tasks in sequence. The delay comes from the fact that our brains can’t successfully tell us to perform two actions concurrently.4 When we switch tasks, our brains must choose to do so, turn off the cognitive rules for the old task, and turn on the rules for the new one. This takes time, which reduces productivity, particularly for heavy multitaskers — who, it seems, take even longer to switch between tasks than occasional multitaskers.5

In practice, most of us would probably acknowledge that multitasking lets us quickly cross some of the simpler items off our to-do lists. But it rarely helps us solve the toughest problems we’re working on. More often than not, it’s procrastination in disguise.

It hampers creativity

One might think that constant exposure to new information at least makes us more creative. Here again, the opposite seems to be true. Teresa Amabile and her colleagues at the Harvard Business School evaluated the daily work patterns of more than 9,000 individuals working on projects that required creativity and innovation. They found that the likelihood of creative thinking is higher when people focus on one activity for a significant part of the day and collaborate with just one other person. Conversely, when people have highly fragmented days—with many activities, meetings, and discussions in groups—their creative thinking decreases significantly.6

These findings also make intuitive sense. Creative problem solving typically requires us to hold several thoughts at once “in memory,” so we can sense connections we hadn’t seen previously and forge new ideas. When we bounce around quickly from thought to thought, we know we’re less likely to make those crucial connections.

It makes us anxious and it’s addictive

In laboratory settings, researchers have found that subjects asked to multitask show higher levels of stress hormones.7 A survey of managers conducted by Reuters revealed that two-thirds of respondents believed that information overload had lessened job satisfaction and damaged their personal relationships. One-third even thought it had damaged their health.8

Nonetheless, evidence is emerging that humans can become quite addicted to multitasking. Edward Hallowell and John Ratey from Harvard, for instance, have written about people for whom feeling connected provides something like a “dopamine squirt”—the neural effects follow the same pathways used by addictive drugs.9 This effect is familiar too: who hasn’t struggled against the urge to check the smart phone when it vibrates, even when we’re in the middle of doing something else?

Coping with the deluge

So if multitasking isn’t the answer, what is? In our conversations with CEOs and other executives trying to cope, we heard repeatedly about some fairly basic strategies that aren’t very different in spirit from the ones Drucker described more than 40 years ago: some combination of focusing, filtering, and forgetting. The challenge for these executives, and all of us, is that executing such strategies in an always-on environment is harder than it was when Drucker was writing. It requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline, and we can’t do it alone: in our teams and across the whole organization, we need to establish a set of norms that support a more productive way of working.

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To read the complete article, check out other resources, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Derek Dean is an alumnus of McKinsey’s San Francisco office, where he was a director; Caroline Webb is a principal in the London office.

The authors would like to acknowledge the important contributions that Matthias Birk, a consultant in the Berlin office, made to this article through his research on cognitive sciences.

Notes

 

1 Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive, Oxford, UK: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1967, pp. 28–29.

2 For example, compare Julie Morgenstern’s advice to “control the time nibblers,” in her well-regarded book, Never Check E-mail in the Morning: And Other Unexpected Strategies for Making your Work Life Work (Fireside, 2005), with Drucker’s statement that “to be effective, every knowledge worker, and especially every executive, needs to be able to dispose of time in fairly large chunks.”

3 For another view on today’s information challenge and some potential solutions, see Paul Hemp, “Death by information overload,” Harvard Business Review, September 2009, Volume 87, Number 9, pp. 82–89.

4 Christopher L. Asplund, Paul E. Dux, Jason Ivanoff, and René Marois, “Isolation of a central bottleneck of information processing with time-resolved fMRI,” Neuron, 2006, Volume 52, Number 6, pp. 1109–20.

5 Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner, “Cognitive control in media multitaskers,” PNAS, 2009, Volume 106, Number 37, pp. 15583–87.

6 Teresa M. Amabile et al., “Time pressure and creativity in organizations: A longitudinal field study,” Harvard Business School working paper, Number 02-073, 2002.

7 Sue Shellenbarger, “Multitasking makes you stupid,” Wall Street Journal, February 27, 2003.

8 David Bawden and Lyn Robinson, “The dark side of information: Overload, anxiety, and other paradoxes and pathologies,” Journal of Information Science, Volume 20, Number 10, pp. 1–12.

9 Edward M. Hallowell, MD, and John J. Ratey, MD, Delivered from Distraction, Ballantine Books, 2006.

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