Jul 2, 2008

Lost in e-mail at workplace: Facing a self-made beast

Cellphone calls and e-mail and instant messages is fracturing attention spans and hurting productivity. It is a common complaint. But now the very companies that helped create the flood are trying to mop it up.

Some of the biggest technology firms are banding together to fight information overload.

Recently they formed a nonprofit group to study the problem, publicize it and devise ways to help workers cope with the digital deluge: Information Overload Research Group.

Their effort comes as statistical and anecdotal evidence mounts that the same technology tools that have led to improvements in productivity can be counterproductive if overused.

Many people readily recognize that they face continual interruption, but the emerging data on the scale of the problem may come as a surprise.

A typical information worker who sits at a computer all day turns to his e-mail program more than 50 times, and uses instant messaging 77 times, according to one measure by RescueTime, a company that analyzes computer habits.

The company, which draws its data from 40,000 people who have tracking software on their computers, found that on average the worker also stops at 40 Web sites over the course of the day.

Companies are also realizing that there is money to be made in helping people reduce their digital gluttony...

There is a vernacular forming around information overload. Silicon Valley denizens speak of “e-mail bankruptcy,” or getting so far behind in responding to e-mail messages that it becomes necessary to delete them all and start over.

Another relatively new term is “e-mail apnea,” which refers to the way that people, when struck by the volume of new messages in their in-boxes, unconsciously hold their breath.

But the problem, researchers say, is not just volume but also etiquette. Bad actors hit “reply all” on a message instead of responding to an individual, or forward jokes to big groups.

Some say the problem has a psychological dimension in that e-mail messages provide an insidious feedback loop.

See more on The New York Times.

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