There’s a sort of irony in the fact that the first thing I have to say about the book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload is that it seems unorganized. To be fair, I think that whenever you’re bringing together multiple areas of expertise and you’re trying to synthesize THE answer as compared to solving some specific problem in a well-defined area, you’re going to struggle. That’s part of the organization process. You try things, some work – and some don’t.
Despite my criticism that The Organized Mind makes it hard to see the organizing theme for the book throughout its pages, there is a great deal of material there. It’s not a short read, but if you’re interested in organizing information, how people think, or you just want to understand yourself better, there are pieces of the puzzle in its pages. I’ve split my review into two pieces. This review will focus on the problem of information overload. The second will focus on the impact to friendships.
Highly Successful People (HSP)
Before going on a journey – whether in life or in learning – you must know where your destination is. You’ve got to put that one spot on the map that says where you want to go or at least get a good idea of where you’re headed. One option for looking for a place to land in life is to look at highly successful people and seek to join them wherever they are.
When looking for highly successful people, the challenge becomes how you define “highly successful people.” It’s got to be more than money and material success. Shouldn’t the ultimate measure of a successful person be their happiness or the impact they leave on the world? In a word, yes.
The good news when finding a place to go with our quest is that highly successful people tend to be people who are getting things done, who are making an impact on their world, and who are happy. It’s not that these things occur individually. They tend to occur as a cluster of characteristics in the folks that are the most successful.
Financial wealth can be measured easily. Simply look at a bank account or watch as the buildings named after someone pile up – because buildings tend to be named after the people who give the most money. Financial success, while easy to measure, may not be the best measure to define a successful person. After all, what about those who care more about family and community than they do material things and the status that they bring? (See The Normal Personality for more on Reiss’ 16 motivating factors.)
A better measure might be how folks are making their impact in the world. Daniel Pink in Drive describes how to motivate people. The three tools are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. It is purpose that drives us to make an impact in the world. Purpose need not be a Mother Theresa kind of change the world or the peaceful resistance of Gandhi. Purpose can be to lead a family or to raise a child. Your purpose may even be to spread happiness. That could be done with a simple smile delivered with a meal. Because purpose – or impact on the world – is so varied and so unique to each individual, it’s immeasurable. (Even if Douglas Hubbard would disagree, as the title of his book How to Measure Anything implies.)
Happiness is similarly difficult to measure. Many scholars, philosophers and authors have sought to find the secret to happiness. Titles like Stumbling on Happiness, The Happiness Hypothesis, and Hardwiring Happiness may hold clues on what happiness looks, like but they offer little help in finding it in others other than trite remarks about people having a smile on their face. Happiness too is hard to measure and therefore is often ignored in the quest to find highly successful people.
Because we perceive impact and happiness to be immeasurable, we often ignore this factor. We focus on what is easy and use the heuristic “what you see is all there is.” (See Incognito and Thinking: Fast, and Slow for more on WYSIATI.) We settle on this, because we’re all in a state of information overload. We settle on measuring wealth because it’s easy, and when we’re overwhelmed we want easy.
It’s hard to escape information overload. In 1976, there were roughly 9,000 unique products in your local supermarket. The aisles were tight and the lights were dim. Today, the typical store is larger, brighter, with wider aisles and 40,000 products. Consider that most people get 80-85% of our needs met with only 150 items, and you might wonder why our stores have exploded with products.
This overwhelming number of options reoccurs in nearly every aspect of our life. In 2011, Americans – on average – took in five times as much information every day as they did in 1986, a fivefold increase in just 25 years. Science has discovered more in the last 20 years than all the discoveries prior to that, all the way back to the beginning of language. Information is a tsunami, and we’re standing on the beach.
The problem of overload is even more pervasive when it comes to news and information. The Information Diet encourages us to think more responsibly about the information that we consume; but how can you do that when the amount of information vehicles, including blogs and YouTube, continue exploding? In my post The Rise and Fall of a Blog, I shared some of my statistics and global statistics on the number of blogs and blog posts. By the end of 2013, WordPress had over 50 million posts and 16 billion reads of articles, and both posts and reads are continuing to climb.
Our brains were simply not designed to come with the sheer amount of information that we’re being confronted with every single day. Evolution takes time. For the first 99% of our history, all we did was procreate and survive. In the last 1%, we’ve begun to accumulate knowledge and generate diversity of thought. We’re caught in the explosion of information. Barry Schwartz explains in The Paradox of Choice how paralyzing it can be to have so many choices, and so much information.
The Impact of Information Overload
At first glance, choice is good. More information leads to better decisions. More information is less uncertainty. However, this is the view of the economist, who believes that we make rational decisions. What we’ve found out is that we’re not at all rational like we want to believe, and few of us behave as the “econs” that economists believe we are. (See Nudge for more about the economist view of the human as an econ.)
We are, as we have come to find out, irrational creatures who behave in odd ways. Sometimes we’re Predictably Irrational, and sometimes we ignore our blind spots, as Incognito points out. However, more important, our rationality is a small rider sitting on a large, emotional elephant. (See Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis for the Rider-Elephant-Path model.) Our rationality gets tired and the elephant begins to wander aimlessly. Instead of information freeing us, it imprisons us. Our riders can’t keep up, and exhaustion has us turning over the reins. We literally fatigue of making decisions, forcing ourselves to adhere to our commitments, and other rational decisions. (See Willpower for more.)
Odd consequences come from information overload. Daniel Gilbert (of Stumbling on Happiness) says that the fundamental attribution error is amplified by information overload. That is, our belief that others’ behaviors are a result of their character becomes more impactful when we’re overloaded. (See The Advantage for more on the fundamental attribution error.)
In this world, where information overload is the norm, we have few options to help us cope. One option is to work on our focus, as The Information Diet suggests. This is a set of strategies, including walling ourselves off from media that we don’t find valuable. “News” and “journalism” like the National Enquirer, and even magazines like People, add little value to our personal lives. I’ve chosen these magazines from hundreds that I might be able to select, because unless you’re a celebrity, they’re unlikely to be speaking about people you know personally and rarely deal with topics which are of global importance – unless you’re particularly concerned about alien abductions.
For most of us, focus is more than just avoiding a few magazines. Focus is more than just avoiding the avoidable situations. Like an alcoholic, just avoiding bars won’t make you not be an alcoholic. Alcohol is everywhere and so is information. We’ve got to learn how to focus our attention on relevant information wherever we are. Our reticular activating system (RAS) regulates attention (see Change or Die for more on the RAS), but it’s overwhelmed with the information that’s coming at us. (If you’re looking for a way to share communications that focus an organization, you may want to look at our white paper, Effective Internal Communication Channels.)
Focus may be a limited coping mechanism. Just like too much focus would have been a threat to our ancestors since they would not be able to monitor for threats in the environment, we may find that hyper focus leaves us vulnerable as well. (The evolutionary dance of flow is an interesting topic for another day.) Today, it’s not just managing the information that we’re exposed to and trying to shape it to enrich our lives, it’s perhaps more important to manage the information that we have seen. That requires a strategy for externalization.
Externalization is the process of getting things out of your head and into supporting systems that we can leverage when we need them. We instinctively do this. Couples partition off responsibilities for certain things – like a social calendar – to one of the partners. This allows the other partner to focus on something else. It’s this externalization of processing, information, and skills that leads widows and widowers to honestly not know how to do things. Perhaps their spouse paid the bills. Perhaps they did the grocery shopping. Whatever it was that their spouse managed, they’ve almost literally lost a part of their brain when they’ve lost their spouse. They must reintegrate these skills.
In a professional world, the externalization to other people is much less dramatic. In my SharePoint work, I know there are certain specific questions that I can ask of specific people. I’ve got people to talk to about the latest software development options, search, profiles, HTTP throttling, etc. These are all things that I know something about – but I know the person who knows more about it than I do. I know the person I can ask the details so I don’t have to remember them. This allows me to focus on other things.
Most of us rely on people more than electronic systems. Though there have been many attempts to build knowledge management systems, many of them fail. They find that it’s incredibly difficult to convert the tacit knowledge that’s in someone’s head into explicit knowledge that can be coded into a system. Gary Klein’s study of firefighters and their ability to just “know” how a fire was going to behave lead to his book Sources of Power and the awareness that tacit knowledge is something based on a lifetime of experience, which is difficult to codify. While I rely on a deep – and extensive – system of notes and blog posts for all the books that I’ve read, I recognize that there are some things which are simply difficult to capture. (See Research in the age of electrons for more about my systems.)
Back to Success
Coming back to highly successful people (HSPs) for a moment, what do they do to be successful? They seem to focus and externalize. HSPs have “people” to take care of trivial, mundane, or out-of-focus things for them. From the simple externalization like hiring out housekeeping or lawn maintenance to the more complicated administrative support, HSPs work to minimize the things that they must focus on and leverage both people and systems to do it.
Whether it’s an administrative assistant or living by their calendar, HSPs don’t worry about where they need to be next. They assume their calendar will remind them when it’s time, or their administrative assistant will come get them for their next appointment. They don’t have to pay any attention to time. (Which is good if they are trying to get into flow; see The Rise of Superman for more.)
HSPs leverage people and systems to have answers that they don’t have. Whether it’s a network of colleagues that they can depend on to have answers they don’t have, extensive notes from the work that they’ve done in the past, or some other solution, HSPs work hard to build systems around them to make it possible for them to be successful.
Not that I’m a HSP, but I can say that I write these blog posts to help me integrate my thoughts about what I’m reading. I write blog posts with the detailed technical things and the random stuff I experience so that I can find it later. I’m not going to remember the specific TCP/IP packet sequence when an SSL certificate is bad – but I can refer back to my blog post to find out what it is, if I need to. It’s a behavior of HSPs that I’ve been adopting for years.
Herbert Simon coined the term “satisficing,” but I was introduced to it by Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice. It’s all about doing just enough. It’s not obsessing about something, just doing what it takes to make the problem or situation go away. It’s a coping skill and an unconscious strategy to deal with the problem of information overload. It’s a great idea for some things but a horrible idea for the things that we desire to be experts in. For that, we need the opposite strategy: “maximizing.” Peak explains that, to be the best at something, we’ve got to be continually trying to be better through deliberate practice. This deliberate practice is maximizing. It’s the quest to achieve more than we can achieve today.
However, satisficing has a place in the quest to become highly successful. Satisficing is the strategy to deal with everything that’s not our goal so that we can maximize our energies to the areas in our life that we want to be at the peak of our game.
Multitasking is one of the new plagues of our information crazed society. Folks have Twitter, Facebook, three chat programs, and a newsfeed going on their computer, a TV on in the background, and they believe that they’re able to effectively multitask across all these channels of media. However, the research says something different. Multitasking decreases IQ. Multitasking causes information to be stored in the wrong place in our brains. Multitasking is rapid task switching, which reduces our overall efficiency and at the same time leads to our feeling exhausted.
Despite this, we’re designing our lives around the idea that we can be constantly overstimulated and multitasking. A simple example is simply email notifications. We believe we can stay focused on what we’re doing while watching an email notification come in. In truth, we can’t stay focused when an attention-grabbing subject line comes through. We switch our attention to the email and back to what we were doing, and it costs us productivity. Despite this, too few of us turn off our notifications. (Here’s how to turn off your notifications in Outlook if you’re interested.)
Our ability to focus our attention on something is a limited capacity. Like willpower, it can be exhausted. We need our ability to switch our attention at times to take care of truly urgent things – or in some roles where picking a single instrument out of a crowd. (I mentioned how audio engineers need to do this in my review on Hardwiring Happiness.)
I Have It on Good Authority
It used to be that when you read something in the newspaper or in a book, you had it on good authority. Journalists adhered to standards. Book publishers made sure that authors were experts before working with them on a book project – because to not do so was too financially risky. However, times have changed.
Many of us don’t get our news and article content from journalists any longer. Despite blogs being passé, we find answers on blogs. We leverage search to find the information we want and don’t bother to check the credentials of the person who wrote it. We find a journal article and don’t have any idea whether it’s been peer-reviewed or not. Even if we presumed for a moment that all journalists were reputable and upheld high standards of reporting, it wouldn’t matter because we just don’t get our information that way any longer.
Books are no better. Today, anyone who has an idea and a few hundred dollars can publish a book and have it show up in distribution just like any other book. I wrote about my self-publishing experience in 2009 in my post Self-Publishing with Lulu. While I’ve got over a dozen books published with traditional publishers, many of my more recent works are self-published. There’s not anything special about my ability to self-publish. Anyone can do it – and that’s the problem. How do you know whether the person you’re reading really knows what they’re talking about? You don’t. You assume, because they’ve written a book that they do.
In some circles, exploiting the instant credibility that comes with having written a book is leveraged to people’s advantage. Speakers and consultants pay to have folks help them write their book in the form of writing coaches, vanity presses, and the like. It’s worth it to them. It’s a marketing expense to be perceived as the expert.
On the consumer side, this means you never really know the authority of the sources of information that you’re reading. Before the internet became popular in the 1990s, if you wanted information you had to work hard to find it. Now the challenge is not finding the information. Now the challenge is validating that the information is correct and comes from a reputable source. We use comments and reviews as a proxy, but the technique of astroturfing has become so popular that we don’t know if the comments that we’re reading to validate something are real or if they’re sponsored. (See Analyzing the Social Web for more.)
Losing One’s Mind
Until the 1600s, families lived in one-room houses – with most of their relatives huddling around the stove in the center of the room to keep warm. Now we have so many things that we can’t remember where we put them. The average person today owns thousands of times more things than our hunter-gather ancestors. We buy duplicates of things so we don’t have to carry them from place to place. Now three out of four Americans admit to having so much stuff in their garages that they couldn’t put their car in them.
It’s little wonder that we can’t find things. It’s little wonder that we have no idea where we left our keys or our glasses – that is, unless, of course, we have purchased something to create a place for those things to go. These “affordances,” as they’re called, create places for things. By spending money on the affordances – thereby further increasing the things we have – we can sometimes create a place for the other things that we keep losing. If it seems like we’re losing our mind to buy things to have a place for other things, you’ve just discovered the container store market.
In the next installment of The Organized Mind, I’ll talk about our relationships with other people.