Every time a new research study around personal productivity and office culture appears, we dutifully post the "proof" that information overload, email distractions, and multitasking are keeping you from getting work done—but are they? Sure, many of these findings seem very feasible, but it's hard not to think they're published only as a crutch for a larger commercial or media message—either "the internet is destroying your life!" or "you need to buy this product."
Over the few years this site's been in existence, studies have shown that email kills concentration more than smoking pot does, that you've got 11 minutes before the next interruption, that dual monitors increase productivity, that no one understands the intended tone of your email, that email overload costs the American economy more than $700 billion a year, and that multitasking kills your ability to focus and get things done.
Ok, fine. Most of these findings seem to be sensible (except for the pot versus email one, which got way too sensationalised). Even though a study that shows widescreen monitors increase your productivity was commissioned by Apple right around the time they were marketing their cinema displays, my personal experience has confirmed (subjectively) that more screen real estate does help spread out windows and make it easier to work.
Even so, the constant reappearance of these studies in mainstream media over the last few years do make one question what's going on. It's the information and email overload studies that trip my BS detector the most. While I agree that an overstuffed inbox and constant email monitoring can kill your day, this $700 billion a year cost to the American economy makes me raise one eyebrow high in doubt. Did researchers factor in how much time email actually saves people who use it? I get dozens of messages per day and spend a good amount of time managing all of them. I'm the first to complain about what a time sink email can be. However, if I had to get on the phone or mail a letter to Adam, Kevin, Tamar, and Jason every time I wanted to tell them something? Nothing would get done around here. $700 billion a year lost after a gazillion gained leaves us in the black in the end.
Yet, research like this fuels productivity hucksters' cannons with more ammo so we can fire off yet another productivity article or book that will solve this terribly widespread problem. (I include myself in this.) Software and hardware companies put out more products that track your time, measure your output, organise your stuff, and make you "more productive" in every which way. "Social web" applications like Twitter and Facebook continue to be condemned in mainstream media as a giant waste of time—because we've got so many other "unimportant" things like email eating up our time anyway.
Even though we're very much a cog in this giant machine, I have my doubts.
The longer I do this, the more I suspect that a good part of the "information overload" story is a myth cooked up by folks who don't know how to use the internet well in order to demonise something they don't understand. I get more done via email and surfing the web than my parents ever did using phones and libraries, even when I'm having a bad day and switch to my email application the moment I see a new message notification.
At least three other well-seasoned internet veterans agree. In chapter 5 of her book, Connect!, Anne Zelenka argues against "firewalling your attention" to block out distractions and get things done. That's the old way of thinking; Zelenka asserts that you can be productive by being open to tangents, distractions, and the riding the flowing river of news and information you're exposed to on the web each day. In defence of "wasted" time online, author Clay Shirky points out that interacting online is so much better than what we used to do with our free time (that is, watch TV or get ripped). Even Bill Gates said that we're actually suffering from information underload, not overload. (Though Gates, then head of a giant software maker, did say we need better products to manage the information we do get—and surely his company's out to make them.)
In short, this post is our very belated disclaimer for any productivity research findings we publish on these pages. Personal productivity is indeed personal, so always take study result findings around digital life and the ensuing prescriptive solutions with more than one grain of salt. When you choose the solutions to implement in your life, make sure they resolve problems you have, not 98% of faceless office workers somebody commissioned by some company polled somewhere.