Have we become a society of whiners when it comes to information overload? The time management field is overflowing with advice touting that more self-discipline is needed to control time allocations. Should we just "man-up" and manage our time better? Or perhaps there is something fundamentally different now than in the past—a difference to be concerned about, a difference that creates challenges and opportunities?
Clay Shirky has asserted that information overload is not new and has existed throughout history; the problem stems from limits on our ability to filter information. On the other hand, Tom Davenport suggests in an HBR post that we don't really care about information overload at all; we consciously allow it to happen.
The problem is that people don't have tools to filter information down to the most useful bits with minimal effort. The only choices we have right now are to take everything through our various media sources or shut ourselves off from potential opportunities. Of course that's a false choice because when we let ourselves be inundated by information we miss things anyway—time is the ultimate arbiter of attention.
Pressure Increasing on the Attention Bottleneck
The infographic contains key statistics on the growth of information and product proliferation (This is research I collected while writing my book, The 24-Hour Customer). There are many reasons for these trends, some are material (use of mobile devices to consume and generate new information) and some are silly (gaming Google's PageRank algorithm)—but there's no doubt that the trend is accelerating.
Information overload is not new as Shirky points out. What is new is the growing imbalance between the rate of information growth relative to the fixed constraint of time. In 16 waking hours a day, people can only comprehend a finite amount of what's thrown at them. The information coming into the top of the funnel in the infographic is growing at an increasing rate while the intake at the bottom remains fixed adding pressure to the attention bottleneck.
This pressure explains why it's more difficult to gain attention from consumers today versus twenty years ago when there were less data, fewer products and fewer distracting digital devices. This dynamic has driven an attention arms race where it feels like we are in Times Square with lights flashing and noise blaring all the time, no matter where we are.
This is very real and different. It is not about people being lazy or inept; the kind of discipline required to shut out the world and avoid multitasking with all the electronic temptations at our fingertips is significantly greater than in the past.
Time Constraints Drive Attention When Information Filters Fail
Filter failure is a cause as Shirky suggests, but perhaps more concerning is the rate of filter innovation that fails to keep pace with the explosive growth of information. When information filters are broken, time constraints become the filter. Stress caused by information overload will only get worse unless we rapidly innovate better methods and technologies that enable people to cope. I'll share some ideas on that—and the opportunity for businesses to capture consumers and profits—in a future post.
Adrian Ott has been called, "One of Silicon Valley's most respected, (if not the most respected) strategists" by Consulting Magazine. She is the author of the new book The 24-Hour Customer: New Rules for Winning in a Time-Starved, Always-Connected Economy (HarperCollins, August 2010) and CEO of Exponential Edge®Inc. consulting. Follow Adrian on Twitter at @ExponentialEdge
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