Author’s Note: As we enter the holiday gift giving season, I’d like to share a tale that might offer you a new way to think about how people synthesize information and enable you to reflect on your personal experiences in doing so. My hope is that this story will empower you to clear your head, access a moment of peace and quiet, and focus on that which matters most to you.
Last year my colleague Ron Ashkenas sent an email to his contacts with a subject line offering “The Gift of Simplicity.” While he intended to populate the body of his message with helpful tips around combating complexity and a link to his book, Simply Effective: How to Cut Through Complexity in Your Organization and Get Things Done, he accidently issued a blank note. In the moments that followed, Ron worried about the repercussions. What would his coveted contacts think when they found an empty shell in his well intentioned outreach? How might he control the damage? It didn’t take long for him to realize that this was unnecessary as glowing emails started to pour into his inbox. Ron was delighted to see that his recipients “got the joke” and agreed nothing is simpler than a blank email.
With the benefit of modern technology and a culture where staying connected is as important as being self-reliant, we’re overloaded by stimuli coming at us from multiple angles – texts, emails, Facebook updates, tweets, you name it. A time without the internet and a personal computer feels like a light year away. Dare I mention what life is like without your cell phone? It is experienced by many as a shock to the system.
Even though we crave being in the know, staying current, and keeping in touch, we’re cognitively overwhelmed by the volume of information coming our way. Managing information overload is frying our personal processing system. Sharon Begley reports that with too much information, people “start making stupid mistakes and bad choices …” When we surpass our processing limits, we’re unable to retain information and our ability to understand and learn is weakened. Begley describes how incoming information, for example, each email that hits our inbox, requires us to make a decision around how to handle it. Should we pay attention, reply, delete, file it away? With more data available, studies reveal that people make less effective choices or resort to no choice at all – now that’s not simply effective!
Hence, we begin to understand the surprising response Ron received from his contacts. Containing no information, links, text, images, or thought provoking insights, readers were able to do nothing but relax. I suspect they experienced his email as a breath of fresh air – a moment of silence – and an opportunity to free themselves from managing information overload.
Beyond tackling common sources of complexity in your organization, (Ron describes these as structural, process, product, and behavioral) there is an opportunity to clean the slate and simplify what is going on within your head. Describing the difference between working and long-term memory, Nicholas Carr clarifies that “the depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory, the scratch pad of consciousness, to long-term memory, the mind’s filing system.” Long-term memory, he explains, has an almost unlimited capacity; while, working memory is quite fragile and can only hold a small amount of information. A lapse in attention, for example, taking a moment to see if a new email message has arrived while responding to another, can erase contents from one’s mind. Thus, the technology that enables us to be “in the know” could also prevent us from knowing what we know!
The moral of the story … life is colorful, full of special moments to connect with others, learn, think differently, and grow; but we all have our cognitive limits. I’m not advocating for you to stop sending emails, refrain from checking your Facebook page once in a while, or start issuing text-less communications, but instead, here’s an opportunity to practice more mindfulness when interacting with communication technologies. Whether you are reaching out to others, or are the recipient of information, do what you can to reduce the processing load.
As Ron summarizes in his book, simplicity starts with you – set realistic strategies and establish clear goals to combat complexity in your life.
How do you plan to address the information overload you’re experiencing?
Holly Newman Greenberg is a principal at Schaffer Consulting where she focuses on large-scale transformational change and performance improvement initiatives. She holds a Masters degree in Organizational Psychology from Teachers College Columbia University.