Jeff Davidson's book, Simpler Living, was Amazon Kindle #1 in its category, first quarter, 2012. Jeff is featured in the NY Times, Forbes, Chicago Tribune, Businessweek, Fortune, Organized Executive, and Success.

Handling Interruption and Information Overload

Information overload is a pervasive problem for career professionals today, and chances are that you are besieged by all kinds of information competing for your time and attention. Is this merely a lucky guess? Given the way our society is progressing, everyone who holds a position of responsibility is, almost by definition, besieged by too much competing for their time and attention. Each of us, on a daily basis, faces more information than any generation in history.

What is the origin of this information buildup? Was it predictable? Can we look to the past to see the reasons why there’s so much information today? It turns out that we can. There have been three great ages of humankind, with a fourth about to emerge. The first was the age of hunting and gathering, wherein people lived principally by hunting animals and collecting berries.

The age of agriculture followed, when people learned that they didn’t have to be nomads, wandering around to find their next meal. Instead, they could cultivate the soil, predict when crops would grow, and forecast what their yield would be. This was a great leap forward for humankind; it allowed for an understanding of how to work with nature and the seasons.

The next great age was the great age of industry, in which all manner of capital was put together so that consumers, as a class, would be served by producers, who learned countless ways to turn out products through mass production capabilities. The next age that will emerge — but that is not here yet — is the information age. Many people make the mistake of believing that we’re in the information age already. But in the information age, information will serve us, and we will not be abused by an excess of information.

I refer to the present at the pre-information age in which we now reside – the era of over-information, an idea I’m sure you can readily relate to. We all face more information than we need to proceed with our careers and our lives.

The Shortcomings of the Information Age

To greater understand how we are besieged with information, consider this. In the industrial age, when people needed to achieve something, did they have to go through a series of motions, read manuals, or become experts at the task? Not at all; they flipped a switch (or clapped their hands, jiggled their keys, or some other simple task). It wasn’t necessary to know a single thing about lighting; all one needed to do was flip a switch to turn the light on.

Lighting is a product of the industrial age, and lights serve you — to get them on, you only flip a switch. To start the car, you need only turn the key or press a button. To take care of a number of other tasks, you click a mouse, search the web, or copy and paste. That is the age of industry working at its best, so that you don’t have to become an electrical engineer or physicist to function effectively.

Let’s take the same concept about what it takes to function effectively in the age of industry, and apply it to information. To get the information you need, what do you need to do? Do you need to go online or open a manual? Unfortunately, most of us right now — particularly in the workplace — end up going through a series of activities in order to get the precise information we need. Very often, the problem is not a lack of information on a topic. Frequently, the problem we face is an abundance of information, or too much information of a general nature. In the age of information, this won’t be as much of a challenge. You will be able to turn on a computer, come up with the specific question you have, and it will do the work for you.

The age of information is coming, but before it arrives, there will be a great deal of pain and gnashing of teeth. This generation is more besieged by information than any that preceded it, and perhaps more so than all previous generations combined. We have more things competing for our time and attention than any group in history. For example, last year the Smithsonian Institution in Washington added nearly one million new items to their collection — despite the fact that they’ve been in existence for more than 145 years. They’ll probably have 1.1 million next year.

The era of over-information uniformly affects us all, institutions included. What we have failed to learn is how to let go of the things that aren’t so important to retain. We seem to be in a state of megalomania, grabbing every bit of information we have and surrendering almost nothing. Take the English language as another example. With more words in it than almost any other language on earth, English has grown by 80,000 words+ since the mid-1960s.

If you were adept at speaking English years ago, but fell into a coma and woke up today, you would have a host of new terms to learn. These aren’t just medical, legal, or scientific terms, but words in everyday language. The growth of words in the English language in the last several decades is half the total number of words in many entire languages! All around us, more information is the norm.

In researching for my book, Breathing Space, I was aghast at the amount of information to which we’re all exposed. Once you understand the amount of information that impacts career professionals, you begin to understand how important it is to become more selective than you’ve ever been. Several million pages are used to print the documents for the trials, heats, and finals for the winter and summer Olympics. These documents are generated just to keep up with the results. But in 1896 in Greece, or in ancient Sparta and Athens, they didn’t need millions of pages of documents.

Consider that last year, Congress received several hundred million pieces of mail, up from 15 million in 1970. The Congress of the United States now receives 30 to 40 times the amount of mail it received before. Is it any wonder that the people we elect are not as effective as they could be? They are inundated by the amount of information they encounter.

Anyone who is inundated with information will not be as effective as they would be if they had a few thin files of potent information designed specifically for the task at hand. Instead, there are more than 55 million computer printers in the United States alone, spewing out billions of reams of paper a year. Where is the paperless office?

To understand how much information you’re being hit by, consider that in the Sorbonne library in Paris in 1302, you could spend eight or ten years studying the 900 to 1,000 volumes that represented the vast accumulation of knowledge in the Western world. Afterwards, you could leave and be among the top 100 most learned people on the planet.

Today, however, just to keep up with new legislation, breakthroughs, what competitors are doing, shifts in the marketplace, or new technology would be a full job in itself. Never mind undertaking the job for which you were hired, managing your staff, or meeting quota — just to keep up with everything that had impact in your industry or profession, it would take all your waking hours and then some. This is the case in every industry and profession in America. The amount of information we’re all exposed to is exponential. The point? You can’t keep up, and hereafter, you shouldn’t take it as something personal.

Information Overkill

It is a socially and culturally pervasive phenomenon for people to wake up feeling they are deficient as time managers, supervisors, or information managers. Yet, everyone feels the same way, because everyone is being hit with more data than anyone can fathom. Today, there are at least 2,000 books published worldwide. At least 700 are published in your profession every week. Thousands of new magazines are launched every year in the United States.

All told, more information is generated in a 24-hour period than you could take in for the rest of your life. And as more people go on-line and add information to the Internet, we will rapidly approach a situation in which more information is generated on earth in one hour than you could take in for the rest of your life. What do we do about it? First, we don’t worry about it. Second, we get more selective than ever about what we take in. Third, we decide what information is truly important to us.

Where do we want to be in the future? We can’t stay on top of everything, but we can determine in advance where we want to be. The massive overkill of information that we all face is sometimes amusing and sometimes scary. Here’s an example. Typical White House press coverage is 1,800 reporters a day. Couldn’t 300 or 400 people do the job? The 1,800 we have is massive overkill.

All of this is information adding to the massive glut of information we can’t handle. Another example of massive overkill is the “who killed JFK” industry. In his 1993 book, Case Closed, Gerald Posner walks through every detail and shows conclusively why it was definitely Lee Harvey Oswald who fired the gun, and how the “magic bullets” indeed did take the angles they were supposed to. Additional mythology or conspiracy theories about who killed John F. Kennedy will only add to the glut of information we can’t use, information which serves no one. Yet, it is a $200 million industry that is constantly fed by more authors, books, kiosks, tours, and so on.

Cancer research and treatment also suffer from massive overkill. There are more people involved in the research and treatment of cancer than there are actual victims. In other words, cancer victims could each have a personal representative in government or private research and development. So much is being published, but unfortunately, there seem to be few real breakthroughs. There’s massive overkill in the amount of administration, paper, and reports, but the results we’re looking for are often not there.

Think about the tax considerations just to employ a nanny in your household. Overkill afflicts us whether we’re filling out our taxes, buying property, selling property — try to fire someone today. Everywhere we turn, there’s more information, more forms, more red tape, and more involvement. It is not your fault that you were born in this society at this time; you’re a product of this culture. It is my hope that when you understand that information overkill is affecting all of us, you will become more selective than you’ve ever been.

Do We Know More or Less Today?

I assume that you’re a fairly sophisticated person, certainly more knowledgeable than people of previous generations. I have a hypothesis, however, that despite all that you know, when you consider this knowledge as a percentage of all there is to be known, you actually know less than previous generations did. People in previous generations had less to know; thus, they had an inherent advantage. For instance, do you know when the Challenger shuttle blew up? Without asking anyone else or consulting any sources, could you say? The answer is 1986.

What if I asked you when Mikhail Gorbachev assumed power in the Soviet Union? Again, don’t consult anything other than your own knowledge. Do you know? I’ve asked this question in rooms of up to 400 people, and I hear answers all over the board. The answer is 1985. When did the first gas lines begin to form in the United States as a result of the OPEC oil embargo? You may remember it; you probably lived through it — it was 1973. Why is it that events of the last 20 to 25 years ago are hard to recall? Because everything has gone by like one big blur.

When there are a lot of things competing for your time and attention, it’s hard to keep things in context. I routinely give quizzes when I give presentations to groups, and I find that it’s often easier to pick out dates in the distant past than it is to recall what happened in the last 20 to 25 years. Most people know that the Vikings landed in Newfoundland around 1000 — 1002, to be exact. What about the Norman invasion of England? Every time I ask for this date, somebody says 1066.

They know that better than they know what happened in the last 20 to 25 years, in terms of naming the actual year. When was the Magna Carta signed? Often, many people know the answer: 1215. When did the pilgrims land on Plymouth Rock? 1620. The adoption of the Constitution? 1783. In addition, most people know that the Bolshevik revolution began in 1917; that Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in 1927; and that the stock market crashed in 1929 — perhaps they even know the exact date, October 28. When you’re hit by too much information, it goes by in one big blur.

As sophisticated and knowledgeable as you are about information, how well would you do on a quiz of your cultural knowledge? For instance, what’s the population of Indonesia? More than 200 million; it’ll one day overtake the United States, and it’s no bigger than California.

Do you know the principal languages of foreign countries? Did you know that Cambodia’s principal language is Khmer? Or that Belgium’s principal language is Flemish? What about Portuguese in Brazil, or Persian in Iran? The people of these countries share the planet with us, but most of us have no idea what language they speak.

See if you can tell what the following items have in common: Surabeya, Port Alegra, Harbin, Pune, Changdu, Huan, Yangdong, Tiago, Tashkent, and Kanpur. What do they have in common? They are all cities of several million people. Have you heard of any of them? They probably exceed the population of your city. Here are some more examples. See if you can tell which is bigger, in terms of land size. Is Texas bigger than Spain? If you said yes, you’re right. What about France? Again, Texas is bigger. How about Mozambique and Texas? Mozambique is bigger. Is China or the continental United States bigger? The answer is China, as you may have guessed — but would you have guessed that China is still bigger than the United States, with Alaska and Hawaii included? How about Alaska and India — which is bigger? India is bigger. California or Japan? California is larger.

What Information Do We Need?

The point is that more information means that we’ll know less of the available information that’s out there. But there’s no need to worry, because all of us are in the same boat. What this also tells us is that we have to be much more discriminating about our attention to news, information, and entertainment. We also need to redefine what is news. “News” is a derivative of “new.” Here are some items that I don’t consider to be news. My selections may anger you initially, but I’ll soon explain why I believe this.

Ethnic clashes that have been going on for thousands of years aren’t news — there would have to be a breakthrough in order for them to be news. Ancient hostilities, the death of communism, political corruption, government blundering — are not news unless there’s a different nature to them. Unsubstantiated allegations against politicians or celebrities aren’t news. Last night’s fire, inner-city crime, and the plight of the homeless are all undesirable situations, but they’re not news.

When every TV station gives us this same information night after night, they ignore the breakthroughs in human potential and the fact that most people went to bed happy last night. This convolutes our view of society; we’re deluged with news that says that things aren’t going so well. Certainly, we have problems, but this constant barrage of what’s going wrong is going to shape perceptions. There’s no need to take in information because you feel you ought to, or you must. There is no body of information anymore that everyone can be counted on to know.

You might think, for example, that everyone should know the dates of the Civil War in the United States (1861 to 1865). But if someone just came to this country within the last decade, and they’ve been learning English and learning the culture, they may not know the dates of the Civil War, and it may not have as much importance to them. We can’t count on anybody having any particular body of knowledge that everyone else has. If you’re a manager or supervisor, that immediately tells you that your goal in explaining things to people is a greater challenge today than it was to your counterpart of years ago. You can’t make assumptions that managers could make years ago.

Often, we don’t even realize when we’ve crossed the line in terms of news and information intake. A lot of people listen to the “shock jocks” in the morning on the way to work, with the justification that times are tough, and they could use a chuckle. What they don’t understand, however, is that every bit of information they take in has impact. This impact is ultimately cumulative, and the quality of your life will ultimately be influenced by the kinds of information you take in. If you listen to people who make millions of dollars by deriding society, telling off-color jokes, using foul language, or telling tales that are unsubstantiated, then it tells us a lot about you. Yet, these shock jocks are multi-million dollar industries, because people continue to support that kind of information intake.

Reducing Our Information Intake

When we consider the major form of information intake in our society — despite the presence of the Internet in virtually all organizations today, and in many homes; and despite the fact that much of the information we get is by television or radio — paper still seems to predominate as the major mode of information dissemination. It’s curious that this would be the case even today.

There are three basic reasons why paper is still king.
  1. USA also produces 25% of the world’s paper, which is why there is so much paper available to such a small fraction of the world’s population (4%).
  2. In the United States, we have the lowest postal rates in the world.
  3. We also have the greatest capacity for paper generation — more laser printers, more fax machines, more personal copiers, and more computers than any nation on earth, per capita.
We publish, print, make backup copies, cc: people, and spend all kinds of time documenting our trails. Having the lowest postal rates has spawned a huge direct mail industry. Your name is on hundreds, if not thousands, of lists.

Every time you do anything whereby your name can get on a list, it does get placed on a list. In many states, when you register your vehicle, your name gets sold, placed on giant computerized mailing lists, and soon you start to receive countless advertisements and offers in support of your vehicle. If you order over the internet, pay by credit card, or participate in any transaction where your name and address are given, chances are that you’ll be placed on someone else’s list. I routinely ask that my name be kept off of any mailing lists whenever I make a transaction. That alone cuts down on a lot of the paper and information you’re subject to that you don’t even need to be seeing.

Our offices are glutted with paper and information because we have a predisposition in our society to photocopy. Our credo has almost become, “I photocopy (or fax); therefore, I am.” Sometimes it’s important to leave a paper trail or to have meticulous files. But this predisposition carries over to copying recipes, Little League schedules — you name it. Soon we have copies upon copies, and that in itself wouldn’t be so bad, if not for the fact that we don’t have the habit of paring down, so that we have less to . . .

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Jeff Davidson is "The Work-Life Balance Expert®," is a preeminent time management authority, has written 65 mainstream books, and is an electrifying professional speaker, making 886 presentations to clients such as Lockheed Martin, Eckerd, Kaiser Permanente, IBM, American Express, Lufthansa, Swissotel, Re/Max, USAA, Worthington Steel, and the World Bank. Jeff is Executive Director of the Breathing Space Institute and the author of books such as:
  • Simpler Living (Skyhorse Publishing)
  • Dial It Down--Live it Up (Sourcebooks)
  • The 60 Second Innovator (Adams Media)
  • Breathing Space (CreateSpace)
  • Accomplishing Your Goals (Smart Guide Publications)
Jeff is the premier thought leader on work-life balance issues and has been widely quoted in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, New York Times, USA Today, Businessweek, Forbes, and Fortune. Cited by Sharing Ideas Magazine as a "Consummate Speaker," Jeff believes that career professionals today in all industries have a responsibility to achieve their own sense of work-life balance, and he supports that quest through his website

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