From the Blog of Tom Davenport:
I gave a presentation this week on decision-making, and someone in the audience asked me if I thought information overload was an impediment to effective decision-making. “Information overload…yes, I remember that concept. But no one cares about it anymore,” I replied. In fact, nobody ever did.
But why not? We’ve been reading articles in the press about information overload being the bane of productivity for almost twenty years. (Here’s a link to a fairly recent article in Harvard Business Review on the topic called “Death by Information Overload” and a related blog.) And there is no doubt that the information load has only increased — day after day, year after year. Spam filters have helped a bit, but we all still get a lot of stuff we don’t want. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, text messages, email ads — everything we do only adds to the pile.
So if information overload is such a problem, why don’t we do something about it? We could if we wanted to. How many of us bother to tune our spam filters? How many of us turn off the little evanescent window in Outlook that tells us we have a new email? Who signs off of social media because there’s just too much junk? Who turns off their BlackBerry or iPhone in meetings to ensure no distractions? Nobody, that’s who — or very few souls anyway.
Why? First, there is the everlasting hope of something new and exciting. Our work and home lives can be pretty boring, and we’re always hoping that something will come across the ether that will liven things up. If I turn up the filtering on the spam filter or turn off the smartphone, I might miss out on an email promising a new job, a text message offering a new relationship, an RSS feed with a new news item, and so forth. Every new communication offers the frisson of a possible life-changing information event, though it seldom delivers on the promise.
Second, there’s a lot of informational inertia. When was the last time you sat down to redefine the structure of your email folders or readjust your RSS feed portfolio? Whatever our information environment is today, it will likely be the same next month or next year. That’s why companies like it when we sign up for ongoing email broadcasts — we are unlikely to take the time to unsubscribe.
The third reason, which is related to the second, is that we undervalue our own attention. In my book (with John Beck) The Attention Economy, we called attention to “the most important resource in business,” but few people treat it that way. We open junk mail, we watch junk television, we read junk email. It would take investment of attention to save our attention, and most people just aren’t willing to invest.
So the next time you hear someone talking or read someone writing about information overload, save your own attention and tune that person out. Nobody’s ever going to do anything about this so-called problem, so don’t overload your own brain by wrestling with the issue.