Two aspects of the modern workplace are information overload and stress. These two rose precipitously from the mid-nineties to the mess we are so used to today; which raises the question: is there a connection?
At the most basic level we can say that there certainly is: the endless barrage of emails and interruptions – and the need to react to them – raises knowledge workers’ stress to a very unhealthy level. But there is more to this story.
Info overload produces stress – no surprise there. The stress, in turn, reduces productivity; working under cognitive overload and stress slows you down and raises your error rate.
On the other hand, lower productivity can increase stress further, making for a lovely vicious circle. This happens because when you are productive you are happier and more confident – taking pleasure in a job well done, humming along in a state of effective creativity. In this mode you can cope with your incoming messages without giving in to stress and anxiety. But how do you arrive to this ideal state or break through a non-productive cycle, since the overload increased your stress – which lowered your productivity in the first place – leaving you even less capable of coping with the overload?
This chicken and egg conundrum can be solved by adoption of a sensible approach to your messaging. Take a step back and decide what combination of strategies, tools and solutions you can apply that will break the circle by reducing the effect of information overload on your work and peace of mind; then start humming along…
One thing to keep in mind when planning your solution set is the fact that all interruptions are not created equal. Researchers have long known that the effect of an interrupt can vary widely, from very disruptive to quite beneficial. It all depends on the subject involved: an interruption related to what the recipient is working on generally enhances productivity and is positively perceived; one diverging from the current context is annoying and stressing. In practical terms this observation can be used to fight stress by shutting out messages and alerts that aren’t relevant to your current work; for example, let phone callers you ID as irrelevant go to voicemail for later processing, and avoid opening emails from people that aren’t involved in the project you’re acting on right now. A good AI engine might do this – and more – for you one of these days, but you can achieve a lot manually too…
And a last thought: is there a sweet spot for the information overload / productivity relationship? Obviously, if you receive absolutely no incoming messages, you will be very calm, with no stress, and totally unproductive (unless you’re on a secluded mountaintop writing a novel or something). On the other hand, if you are devastated by 500 messages a day (alas, some people are) you will be stressed into very low effectiveness. So there must be a sweet spot somewhere in between, which may vary from person to person depending on their job role, workload, and personality. Your goal should be to curtail your communications and workload to achieve that sweet spot. And if you are a manager – a job that is all about enabling your employees to do a good job – you should make a serious study of how they cope, and get the entire group to balance its communications to keep everybody near that optimum.
Then you can enjoy your work!