Information overload is at this moment harming the productivity and competitiveness of your business.


A 2009 Harvard Business Review article by Paul Hemp references research on “the surging volume of available information… [that] can adversely affect not only personal well-being but also decision making, innovation, and productivity. In one study… people took an average of nearly 25 minutes to return to a work task after an e-mail interruption.”


The article also reports survey results from an effort polling 2,300 Intel employees on email volumes and information overload. Surveyed employees “judge nearly one-third of the messages they receive to be unnecessary,” and “spend about two hours a day processing e-mail.”


Employees commonly report receiving hundreds of emails per week, and executives report receiving similar volumes per day. A few more statistics from the article, and these are from almost ten years ago. Since then, the problem has only worsened:

  • 26 percent of people want to delete all of their email and start over
  • Knowledge workers switch tasks every three minutes
  • Email causes stress for 40 percent of knowledge workers
  • Of six emails that are ignored for a day, five are then ignored for good

When information overwhelms us, we make arbitrary decisions about where we focus attention. You send me ten things, and I may read two. You likely do not even know which ones I read or why I privilege them.


Meanwhile, leaders often forward their ignored items to multiple reports, all of them unintended downstream recipients. It is a formula for turning one overwhelmed person into a team of overwhelmed people.


One of the easiest ways to sort need-to-know from nice-to-know information is to assess how actionable it is. Do I have something to do?


When we communicate information-only content to employees, you add to the burden of determining what deserves their attention, hurting their productivity and your organizational effectiveness.


A good communications team must protect employees from information-only emails. Make sure that you have something for people to do when you communicate, and put the action in the headline. Exceptions should be rare and explicitly defined.


The next time someone asks you to send an information-only email, remember the costs. That email will cost each average recipient about 20 unproductive minutes, and it makes those employees about 80 percent less likely to read the next email on the same topic – perhaps the one they most needed to see.


So what can you do, starting today? Evaluate the communication goals for your company and consider reducing overall communication volume by a fifth (conservative) or a third (aggressive) in the month of September.


Your employees right now think that 33 percent of what you are communicating is unnecessary. Rise to that challenge and clear the table so that people can focus on messages that are more important.