Information overload? (2 of 3)

Following on from my last post here is another extract from  The McKinsey Quarterly in January 2011 titled Recovering from Information overload by Derek Dean & Caroline Webb talking about the perils and myth of multitasking. Guess what? Multitasking doesn’t work!

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 brief ly, 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. 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. 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. 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.  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. 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. 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?

Tune into next post to read the final installment of our mini information overload series.

All my best,

James E

Information overload? (1 of 3)

The other day a friend of mine, Steve MacAlpine, who is a digital guru (check out his blog sent me a fabulous article which appeared in the highly regarded McKinsey Quarterly in January 2011 titled Recovering from Information overload by Derek Dean & Caroline Webb. It is definitely worth a read! Given the prevalence of the problem of information overload and being always “connected” professionals – accountants, lawyers, management consultants, architects, engineers and others need to be aware of the dangers of being continually “on” Although the article, given its McKinsey genesis, speaks mostly about CEO’s and other senior executives – the important lessons contained within need to be learned and heeded by all.

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, 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.

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-f lung 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.

Plug into the next post to read more!

All my best,

James E

First impressions … so, so important

Several weeks ago I met a chap in a park walking his dog who, after a chat while we were both cleaning up after our dogs, introduced himself as a marketing specialist. Given the environment in which we met neither of us had a business card with us. Since then we have run into each other at least another 3 times. Still no luck – no business card on either side.

Lets call our dog-walking friend Tommy as in Tommy Lee-Jones. I liked Tommy he was friendly, appeared to be enthusiastic and passionate about his discipline and was articulate in the value that he delivered for his clients. He looked (not his dress of course but his manner), sounded and behaved like a real professional.

Just the other day I ran into Tommy again and hazzar! he had a business card on him. He said he was in a rush, gave me the card and sped off.  As Tommy semi-jogged his way with his dog to the other side of the park I look down at the card he gave me. Up to this point I believed Tommy was a seasoned professional, well versed in his discipline and ready to add value to his clients. When I looked at his card my heart just sank.  Here is what I saw …

  • The card was printed on some sort of heavy paper (about 120gsm) the type you get printed at those business card vending machines you see at airports.
  • The design/layout was quite up to the standard of what my 13 year old son can do on MS Publisher.
  • Tommy didn’t have his own domain. So his email address read “” For those of you outside Australia bigpond is our largest isp.
  • No website

I could go on but I think you get the idea. Now a lot of you reading this work with big accounting firms, law firms and consultancies – you’re probably ok but there is always room for improvement. Why not ask a friend or contact outside of your market for a frank opinion of your logo, business card & website? You might just get a surprise.

By the way … Tommy’s area of special expertise and client service offering? Marketing. Oh brother!

All my best,

James E.