Info, Info, Everywhere!
An Avalanche of Information Keeps Us Constantly
Is the incomparable speed of high technology saving
you time or stealing your time? Have you lost the ability
to turn off the switch and forget about work when 5:00
p.m. roles around?
The Internet, e-mail, cell phones and fax
machines have changed the way we do business, but they've
also changed the way we spend our time away from the job.
If we aren't constantly connected we feel as though we're
wasting time and letting others get ahead. Information
overload can lead to increased anxiety and, if we're not
careful, to burnout.
Connecting is a choice and we don't have to be in touch
every second of the day. Learn to appreciate the fine art
of disconnecting every once in a while.
Time is finite: As the song from "Rent" tells us,
525,600 minutes measure one year. Each moment must be
consciously spent for maximum results. Twenty years ago
high technology promised an era of tremendous
productivity. Access to information on the Internet and
ease of communication via e-mail held out the prospect of
a world where physical boundaries disappeared and time
Present-day reality is more sobering. Some experts
argue that, rather than serving, technology has enslaved
us. Easy access to the Internet and other technology
means many of us are always connected. What once seemed a
benefit has become a lifestyle precluding downtime.
Last summer Yukari Iwatani of Reuters news service
wrote, "There is no escaping the Web. Kiosks are
springing up everywhere to allow consumers to surf the
Internet and check e-mail between wash cycles and
baseball innings. Amusement parks, ballparks,
campgrounds, bars, car washes, shopping centers and
sports clubs are all offering Web access as kiosks pop up
in unlikely places, hoping to grab the attention of Net
addicts, professionals and even first-time users. Only
five years ago (1995), Internet cafés in which
customers grab a cup of java and peruse the Web for a
fixed per-minute fee were a novelty. Now Internet access
is a common amenity at virtually every major airport and
many business hotels."
Iwatani mentions laundromats, movie theaters and
McDonald's restaurants as other sites for connecting.
Public libraries provide brief periods of free access.
Business travelers wedge their laptops onto airline
fold-down trays to review downloaded e-mail. Once they
land, they rush to a hotel with high-speed Internet
connections to retrieve more.
Marketing expert Dan Janal says the Internet is
pervasive, shaping the way companies and their employees
work. He says the Internet shapes not only business, but
life itself. "Get online," he writes, "or get in the
A Web pundit who calls himself "tenpoundhound.com"
reports being approached by a man who appeared to be a
panhandler. Rather than asking for spare change, he
implored, "You gotta log on to slayer.com! There's
vampires everywhere!" The writer notes, "When even the
bums on the street are pushing their domain names down
your throat in some form of guerilla marketing, it can
mean only one thing: The Internet is
We live in a world with few boundaries. In today's
global economy, someone is always doing business.
Organizations and their employees feel increasing
pressure to be connected and available all the
Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter says
technology has trapped people into working "24/7"-every
hour of the day, every day of the week. "Courtesy of
laptops, cell phones, home fax machines and other
appliances," he observes, "knowledge workers are now
online in cars, planes, trains and homes, virtually
tethered to their offices."
Roach sees burnout down the road. "The '24/7'
culture of nearly around-the-clock work is endemic to the
wired economy. Acceleration of productivity growth
through hard work alone isn't sustainable. People simply
can't work harder and harder indefinitely. That's a
lesson that should not be lost on America and its brave
David Shenk provides a probing analysis of the
impact of information technology on contemporary life in,
"Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut." According to
Shenk, an avalanche of information is overwhelming
contemporary life. This "data smog" stems from an
explosion of communication and information in recent
decades, including advertising, junk mail and
telemarketing, faxes, voice mail, cell phones, news media
and cyber-based sources from e-mail to the World Wide
Among Shenk's "laws" of data smog, he reminds us,
"What they sell is not information technology, but
information anxiety." Who hasn't experienced the sinking
feeling that the computer or cell phone purchased six
months ago is suddenly outdated? Knowing there's
something out there with more bells and whistles leaves
many of us yearning for the upgrade.
Product development and marketing are premised on
creating an insatiable consumer demand for ever-improving
technology. In fact, machines' inherent inability to
address basic human needs (another of Shenk's
"laws"-"Computers are neither human nor humane") drives
the appetite for more technology and greater
A High Price
In their book "Technostress: Coping with
Technology @ Work @ Home @ Play," psychologists Michelle
M. Weil and Larry D. Rosen say it's time to slow down.
"More people are embracing today's technology to save
time," they write. "But they are not using the extra time
for leisure. They are running as fast as they can, moving
at warp speed, juggling too many tasks, and always
wondering, 'Where did the time go?'"
In fact, the consequences are often worse than
simple frustration. The International Stress Management
Association has defined "information fatigue syndrome" to
focus on the physical and mental price we pay for the
overloaded, quickened pace of contemporary life. Symptoms
include heightened blood pressure, impaired vision,
confusion and frustration and diminished concern for
The frightening phenomenon of "road rage" is an
outcome of such pressure. Most of us have witnessed
drivers possessed by irrational behavior, speeding to
reach their destination. Such individuals forego common
sense, become furious at the slightest error of other
drivers and often cause accidents far more serious than
the events triggering their behavior. All in the name of
speed, a mind-set fostered by an environment of
Information overload has horrendous consequences
throughout society. Since people feel helpless, confused
and angry, their work efficiency erodes and their
families suffer. In extreme cases, such feelings might
even contribute to crime rates. We can address these
issues by beginning to make individual decisions toward
focused, positive action.
Filtering Toward Simplicity
Reducing information overload means making
choices. The fundamental action required to address these
issues is to reduce the quantity of information consumed
and increase its quality.
Executive coach Emory Mulling characterizes the
solution as straightforward and old-fashioned: "People
still must recognize that they have to prioritize and win
now," he says. "We have access to all the information in
the world, but that doesn't mean we can process it. In
fact, far from it."
Another term to describe the approach is
"filtering." This can be as simple as not reading junk
e-mail. Using technology available in most e-mail
software, you can create actual filters to sort e-mail
into manageable categories. It's about deciding what's
important. No single human being can digest or manage all
the information available daily, so we have to decide
However you choose to set priorities-you might
ascribe to Stephen Covey's dictums ("First Things First")
or realign your lifestyle according to the
recommendations of Elaine St. James ("Simplify Your
Life") or Jeff Davidson ("The Joy of Simple Living")-most
experts agree that the best way to escape overload is to
reduce the volume of distraction and focus on issues and
information you care about and truly need.
Psychologists Weil and Rosen recommend asking three
• Do I really need to know
• Do I really want to know
• Do I really want the
interruption that may occur once I know?
Experts offer advice about how to take control of
the amount of information flooding our lives. A simple
step is monitoring phone time. Don't be on hold forever.
To avoid interminable rounds of phone tag, leave brief
voice-mail messages describing an action you want taken
or a question you need to have answered. Invite a similar
Many of us feel dependent on cell phones or pagers. But
constant connection can be stressful. In many cases it's
both unnecessary and distracting, making you less
productive in the task at hand.
It's more efficient to deal with information when
it arrives, regardless of the medium-regular mail,
e-mail, fax, Internet and so on. Many recommend touching
each piece of paper only once: Use it and file it, or
toss it. Avoid "maybe" piles. If it's not worth dealing
with the first time, it's not likely to increase in
Potholes on the Info Highway
The ease with which we can communicate and access
vast resources on the Internet means we must be
especially attentive to the potential potholes on the
E-mail makes it so easy to communicate that it's
become a double-edged sword. Many people abuse it, and
others use it carelessly. To prevent being overwhelmed by
useless e-mail, guard your address jealously. You can
install a spam filter to eliminate (or at least reduce)
the amount of junk e-mail you receive.
Don't add to the problem. Avoid forwarding jokes,
chain letters and other mindless banter. If you know
someone who will enjoy it, then send it. But if you
regularly send material to more than a few people, it's
likely many of them don't appreciate it.
By scanning headers on incoming e-mail, you can
avoid those you don't care to read. Avoid sending empty
messages-"Thanks," for instance-unless a response is
required. Be careful about giving away others' e-mail
addresses. If you mail to a large group, enter the
recipients in the area for "blind copies." That way your
message won't be preceded by a massive list of addresses
and others can't skim addresses from your
Sir Walter Scott was two centuries ahead of his
time when he wrote, "Oh, what a tangled web we weave..."
Think of the World Wide Web as the spider; you're the
prey, easily entangled, finding yourself hours later
still chasing something you could have found more quickly
and easily at the library or in an almanac. The Internet
is a tremendous tool, but it's important to learn to
search efficiently. Determine which sites and search
engines suit your particular needs and use them
regularly. Familiarity makes the process more
Avoid chasing banner ads (they're not there to
serve you, but rather to sell you goods and services),
and think twice before you follow links. The best
approach is to sit down with a finite period and a
specific outcome in mind for your search. If you can't
find what you need in a few minutes, you're probably
wasting your time.
We once thought the world would become a paperless
environment. The truth is we use it more and more. In
fact, paper consumption per capita in the United States
tripled from 1980 to 1990, to 1,800 pounds. You won't add
much to that total by being selective and using your
printer. It will save time to print information found on
the Internet. You can read it more quickly and you won't
have to search for it again.
Finally, know when to stop. The Internet will
continue providing information long after you have what
you need. Computer guru John Dvorak, a regular columnist
for PC Magazine, writes, "Just because you have a library
card doesn't mean you're required to read every book in
the Library of Congress."
Who's In Charge?
The ready availability of information via the
Internet can be a blessing or a curse. The same is true
of most technology. Offered as progress, many advances
now add to our daily burden of stress. Taking and making
calls on cell phones. Checking the market from wired
personal organizers. Expecting everything to be available
The "24/7" world created by these advances has led many
people to an exaggerated sense of self-importance. It's
tough to maintain balance: If you're not constantly
connecting, consuming, hurrying, wheeling and dealing,
you're drifting away from the center.
For such people, technology has become the master.
A few years ago, Hugh Heclo, a professor at George Mason
University, conceived of "downteching," describing it as
"the conscious embrace of older, simpler machines. In the
long run, excesses of technology mean that the
comparative advantage shifts from those with information
glut to those with ordered knowledge, from those who can
process vast amounts of throughput to those who can
explain what is worth knowing and why."
Despite the fact that the Internet is
everywhere-and that we can e-mail everyone with the
nugget of information we've just gleaned-we must keep
Heclo's reminder in mind: What is worth knowing? And