Nathan Zeldes has been battling the negative effects of information overload for a decade, since his employer, Intel, first moved from mainframes to PCs. “It became incredibly easy for people to bombard each other with information,” says Zeldes, a principal IT engineer. “Within a year, we were in a total disaster state.”
Since then, he has led the charge at Intel to deal with “infomania,” which he describes as a debilitating state of mental overload caused by backlogs of e-mail, plus interruptions such as e-mail notifications, cell phones and instant messages. For a time, the $35 billion chip maker was satisfied with what Zeldes calls first-generation solutions— advocating e-mail etiquette classes and sharing advice for managing e-mail effectively. (Zeldes has made one of these solutions, called YourTime, available for free download at www.itsharenet.org.) These fixes tend to work for a year or two and then fizzle out, he says.
So last year, Zeldes and two colleagues culled the infomania research and made a case to management for more drastic intervention. What they found: “Knowledge workers spend about 20 hours a week doing e-mail, and one-third of that e-mail is useless,” explains Zeldes. Worse, 70 percent of e-mail gets handled within six minutes of arrival and the average worker is interrupted every three minutes, according to research. “When you switch between tasks, you incur a cognitive reorientation cost,” says David Sward, a senior human factors engineer at Intel and one of Zeldes’s partners on the infomania project. The bottom line was that Intel’s workers were wasting about six hours a week.
Tips for E-Mail Management
Intel management, which was in the middle of an efficiency improvement drive, proved receptive to Zeldes’ ideas. Intel will pilot several next-generation solutions later this year, encouraging what Zeldes calls “technology-assisted behavior change.”
For example, Intel plans to try an e-mail client-side program that intervenes when the sender violates e-mail etiquette in order to enforce good e-mail behavior. (For example, “If you really mean to reply to all these people, please check the boxes next to each name you truly need.”)
Other planned pilot solutions include enabling workers to shut down e-mail and IM notification for specified durations; e-mail “quiet time” methodologies such as batching e-mail on the server and delivering it once an hour; “no e-mail” Fridays (or another specified day),and moving enterprisewide status reports and organizational announcements from push e-mail to an RSS subscription. The goal: Embed the successful programs into an overall behavior change education campaign.
What’s been surprising is the attention this work has garnered outside of Intel, says Zeldes. “We’ve gotten calls from hundreds of organizations, from the U.S. Army to the Salvation Army to everyone in between. It’s the beginning of an awakening.”
Zeldes and his team are collaborating with the handful of companies exploring more radical solutions, but he insists you don’t need a dedicated team or a million-dollar budget to attack the problem. “All it takes,” he says, “is one manager to decide to do something about it.”