There are millions of information sources we could, in theory, keep up with, but only a few that we tell ourselves we must – and the distinction’s pretty arbitrary. I try to answer all personal emails, but I don’t worry about answering all personal Twitter messages.
The way to deal with our irrational, modern malady may be to make choices and use tools that trick us into thinking we are in control:
When Google launched Priority Inbox, which sifts email into “important” and “everything else”, I was sceptical: prioritisation systems mainly involve pointlessly reordering your to-do list. But friends who swear by it don’t really use it to prioritise: they use it as a guiltless way to ignore the non-important emails entirely, and thus feel more in command.
….I capture a page in the note-taking application Evernote, label it with the tag “to read” and file it away. Frequently, I never read it. But it works: the information feels tamed. The tug is gone. I’m in control, so I’m happy.
Funnily enough, Instapaper fills this role for me right now and I feel terrible about it.
I used to love Instapaper – the simplicity of the layout, the focus on reading longer form pieces. Now I just throw everything in there that I think I should read, but in reality I never get round to reading it much. Now it feels like a grim box where I have locked away all of my procrastination and I never really fancy opening it much.
“We think we’re thinking faster, but actually we’re slowing down.” Caroline Webb, Partner at McKinsey & Co.
Following on from my last post, where I mentioned the brilliant “For Your Information” episode of Peter Day’s BBC series In Business in the context of advertising business models, I’d like to look at the other strand of the personal information theme in the programme.
Caroline Webb of McKinsey & Co, was introduced to discuss issues about information overload and its impact of personal productivity and executive teams, following on from the article she and Derek Dean wrote for McKinsey Quarterly, Recovering from Information Overload (free registration required):
In my talk at TEDx Brighton on the skills we need to develop to use the web effectively, I started from the point of view that information overload and distraction were two symptoms of a syndrome of inefficiency and mis-use of the web in our work. We need to make sure the web is working for us, and to do that we need to develop an understanding of networks, better habits of sharing, a sense of when to use our focus and attention in different ways and design more effective work-flows that took advantage of the way the web works.
McKinsey’s raising of this issue adds authority to a meme that’s been growing for some time, with posts like Declaring Email Bankruptcy etc.
In fact it puts me in mind of hopeful posts like E-Mail Is So Five Minutes Ago from BusinessWeek in 2005, when web 2.0 was just becoming an idea with real currency. It reminds us that the a yet unrealised hope for the social web was to help us work smarter, not just generate new opportunities for advertising.
In 2011, email isn’t dead – in fact it is still the centre of many people’s working days – and a range of other messaging options from Twitter to Basecamp updates can all add to rather solve the problems of overload and distraction. It isn’t even a case of us vs. the machines, it is a case that the culture we have evolved in using these things is corrosive and unproductive.
When Caroline Webb talks about an executive sending an email to a wide team and everyone leaping to reply on their BlackBerrys, whatever the hour, whether they are on holiday or in the car, the image that I can’t get out of my head is animals in cages reacting to a bell.
Like Pavlov’s dog we’ve allowed our reward centres and anxieties to be tuned to make us jump at the sound of a smartphone vibrating. The smartest, highest trained people we can get to run our companies are reduced to nervous monkeys.
Here’s a collection of insights from the BBC programme and from the McKinsey Quarterly article:
“Always-on, multitasking work environments are killing productivity, dampening creativity, and making us unhappy.” You know this if you have worked in these cultures – it is literally impossible to do your best work when you’re reacting to round robins and erratic requests at all hours.
“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.”
“[executives] 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.” This is reactive, piecemeal work, dictated by the flow of communications, not the needs of the organisation, the situation, or the opportunities.
“Leaders need to change how they feel good about themselves…” People feel good because via email they get instant responses, can be hands-on on a project the moment they think about it (micro-management, as it was once known). On the flip-side, people feel good because they have a reputation for being ultra-responsive, available all hours.
Just as with Caroline’s quote at the head of this article stating that we fool ourselves into thinking we are thinking faster, “One might think that constant exposure to new information at least makes us more creative. Here again, the opposite seems to be true.”
The strategy you need to get out of this state of affairs is a combination of personal and systems.”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.”
And, it seems, none of this is really new – Peter Drucker was talking about how knowledge workers and executives needed to behave in the 1960s: “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.”
Lastly there are three steps that are required to start to put this right, according to McKinsey:
We need to acknowledge and challenge the mind-sets and current patterns of behaviour.
Leaders need to delegate and resist the temptation to interfere…
Leaders need to work with their teams to “redesign working norms”.
Naturally, as boardrooms tend to be McKinsey’s clients they are focusing on leaders and executive teams in this analysis, but in my experience these things apply to knowledge workers, in fact anyone who uses email, at every level in every type of organisation.
One insight we have now, though, after all these years of social web tools spreading, is that it is just important to think about the culture of working with the web and electronic communications as the tools themselves. As Dan McQuillan said at CityCamp Brighton about – and I echoed in a way – digital tools and networks can be used to loosen clogged bureaucracies and ways of working. But if we don’t think about how they are being used, don’t challenge unproductive and corrosive ways of working, they will establish new workplace tyrannies and inefficiencies…
When change comes (and it will come) it will need to come simultaneously in changes to how we work and how we think about organisations, how hierarchies and networks work together.