Information overload can be considered an individual problem to be solved by many of the rules I've written about in my own journey around personal effectiveness. Or it can be thought of as part of a larger system of people interacting that needs to be addressed with a systematic approach.
I think I have mentioned the Basex-hosted Information Overload Awareness Day on Wednesday, 12 August 2009. It looks like there could be some useful discussions, even some discussion about possible solutions. I was recollected of the event by Craig Roth's more sanguine thoughts about the event: Why I'm Dreading Information Overload Awareness Day. Specifically, while it is great to bring awareness to this topic, it is more important to treat it with some doses of reality. Once you are aware, what do you do about it?
My take on information overload and general "personal effectiveness" has always been to start with the individual and then look out to the system. Most material written on the topic focuses on what we should do as individuals and forgets the fact that each of us works within a larger system where the impact of the overload may be felt on a wider scale. As I read Craig's words and his related item on pacing, treating every day like a nine hour sprint, I couldn't help but think about the Theory of Constraints principle that there should be excess capacity everywhere that is not the constraint. This is also termed "protective capacity:" protecting the constraint from variation within the system. The less protective capacity in the system, the higher the impact of variation. And in human systems, there is always variation. People who know queueing theory can expound on this for quite a while.
So, a properly-running system requires excess capacity outside of the constraint to deal with variation and upsets throughout the system. This means that nearly all knowledge workers should have the time to do work other than what is immediately required to drive toward the goal.
However, before we go off reveling in our extra capacity, let's check something. When should that excess capacity be available? What do you do with it? When do you need to focus and get things done? Just because you are not the constraint, can you let work languish in "excess capacity?"
The capacity is there to be used when the system needs it. In most organizations your input may be required in many places throughout the course of a business week, but even if you aren't the overall constraint there are times when your input is critical to the success of the organization. It is these times where those interruptions are a real killer. At other times, the interruptions have very little effect on the overall. How do you know which is which? That is the solution that I'd like to see promoted in events like Information Overload Awareness Day. Theory of Constraints offers one set of solutions, which I happen to like a lot. But there are others, such as what Craig suggests in his closing comments.
Enjoy Information Overload Awareness Day if you’re new to the subject, but the next day think about real actions that can be taken. Think about a systemic solution, like Enterprise Attention Management which describes how to pull important information forward and push less important information back. EAM avoids the moralizing about what you’re doing to yourself and others and doesn’t require adherents to be converts. It shifts the focus to enterprise-wide efficiency rather than individual struggle.
Whatever the mechanism, the organization must think of itself as a system. And the people who work there must have some way of seeing how they fit into that system. Are they part of the one constraint? Are they supporting functions? How do they decide where and how to focus?
[artwork credit: "Seven Months," and digital painting of information overload by dylanroscover]