Information Overload is an Addiction

Last Updated Dec 16, 2009 12:28 PM EST

We've discussed in this space the many methods available for controlling information overload. Scheduling meetings with yourself. Setting up action folders. Checking e-mail just a few times a day. You know the tips.

So you've conquered info overload, right? You always have a plan, a schedule, a process for getting things done.

No, of course not. Tom Davenport writes on Harvard Business Publishing that if we wanted to tame this problem we would have done so. It's not that we enjoy 24/7 availability, but rather we hunger for what it brings us. Davenport doesn't use the analogy, but I will:

We want to kick the drug, but we like the rush too much.

Here are three reasons that Davenport believes we remain tethered to the Perpetual Information Machine. Sounds like junkie behavior to me.

  • We crave the new and exciting. "Our work and home lives can be pretty boring, and we're always hoping that something will come across the ether that will liven things up," Davenport writes. That sweet job offer might in the next e-mail, after all.
  • We suffer from information inertia. Davenport says we have all kinds of filters, blocks and other technology to tame our IO, but we are too lazy or too busy to use them. When was the last time you unsubscribed from anything?
  • We undervalue our own attention. When the latest Tiger "bimbo eruption" diverts our focus away from work, we are not valuing our own attention very highly.
Davenport's analysis sounds right to me, and that's a scary thought.

Are we addicted to instant information?

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.