so many electronic distractions
Email isn't the problem, it's a symptom of the battle for our attention

Is email really a scourge that needs to be eradicated? 

If you read the popular business press in the last few weeks, you just might think so.

A recent Wall Street Journal article, "Beware Collaboration-Tool Overload," quotes an enterprise IT manager boasting that by adopting the new Microsoft Teams, email traffic has declined by more than 30 percent ... as if the goal of effective collaboration is to reduce email traffic.

In a similar vein, in a recent Atlantic article, "A Behavioral Economist Tries to Fix Email," behavioral economist Dan Ariely claims that “everybody recognizes how much we are destroying productivity with the current email.” 

Ariely’s solution? A new app he has developed to filter the emails you actually need to see. 

While both articles make compelling points about the pain of email overload, let's get this straight: email is not the problem, it is a symptom of the battle for our attention. 

And email is only one symptom of many.

The Fight for Our Limited Attention

Michael Goldhaber coined the term "attention economy" in 1997. Long before the iPhone and wearable computers, Goldhaber noted, “economies are governed by what is scarce, and information, especially on the Net, is not only abundant, but overflowing … [but] attention, is an intrinsically scarce resource." 

An entire book on the subject followed. In "The Attention Economy," professor Tom Davenport observed that “attention is the real currency of businesses and individuals … Those who don't have it want it. Even those who have it want more. You can trade it; you can purchase it.” 

How important is attention in business? Davenport concludes, “understanding and managing attention is now the single most important determinant of business success.”  

Managing attention is the single most important determinant of business success

While these words were written almost 15 years ago, who could argue with the statement today?  

With the advent of the iPhone, smart watches and other smart devices delivering distracting notifications, the battle for our attention is only getting worse. 

And the notifications aren't only about email. Notifications and updates from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, newsfeeds, text messages, Skype and myriad other apps and services vie for our attention. Even enterprise apps such as Salesforce, Zendesk, SAP, Oracle and others have joined the fray by providing updates when important transactions occur.

More Tools to the Rescue?

A whole new generations of collaboration tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts purport to help by reducing email load.  

But do they really help, or do they just add to the notification cacophony? The answer of course, is … it depends. As Melvin Kranzberg famously said, technologies aren’t good or bad, nor are they neutral. It all depends on how they are used.  

And collaboration technologies are no exception.

Adding more tools to an already crowded collection of apps doesn’t sound like a great way to reduce the struggle for our attention. But using these tools offer some advantages, including the real-time communications they enable and maintain as persistent, searchable conversation histories.

But adding these apps means adding one more place to later search for information.  

In fact, one of email's attractions is all our collaborative information ends up in one place: the Inbox. It could be as content, or as a notification to look somewhere else to see content, such as a notification email from Salesforce. 

If you doubt this premise, think of the amount of time you spend digging through emails looking for phone numbers, documents and more.  

Having to search through several apps would only complicate the process and extend the amount of time we spend looking for information. 

So the statement in the Wall Street Journal article about reducing email traffic by moving to Microsoft Teams sounds promising at first blush, but in actuality, is a red flag. Because the information hasn’t disappeared, it's just been dispersed. 

Fragmented information means you will need more time to find it, read it and finally, digest it. And because the distributed information bits are not connected in any meaningful way, you will need to invest additional cognitive effort to put the pieces together. 

So not only are you more distracted, you also get tired faster. Hardly a recipe for success.

What’s the Answer?

Over 50 years ago, psychologist James G. Miller published a study entitled, Information Input Overload in which he laid out seven strategies to help focus attention.  While the strategies predate PCs, the internet and smartphones, they are all still relevant.  

Here are Miller’s seven strategies for dealing with information overload, updated for the times:

  1. Omission — The concept is simple: you can’t consume everything, so ignore some. This is a bit dangerous since some of the omitted information might be the most critical. Imagine if the email you ignored was the one where your most important client alerted you to a new opportunity.
  2. Error — Respond to information without giving due consideration. While a seemingly poor strategy, this is more common than you might think. Who hasn’t reacted to an email, report or telephone call without thinking through all the consequences because of time constraints or lack of attention?
  3. Queuing — Putting information aside until there is time catch up later. An example is processing email early in the morning, before the business day begins, or reading important reports late at night.
  4. Filtering — This is similar to omission, except filtering employs a priority scheme for processing some information while ignoring others. Automated tools are particularly well suited to help filter information. Recommendation engines, search tools, email Inbox rule engines, Ariely’s Filtr app and Tivo are examples of tools that can help filter and prioritize information.
  5. Employing multiple/parallel channels — Doling out information processing tasks, for example, assigning the tracking of Twitter feeds to one person and blog coverage to another person on your team.
  6. Approximation — Processing information with limited precision. Skimming is an example of approximation. Like omission and error, you can process more information by approximating, but you run the risk of making critical mistakes
  7. Escaping from the task — Making this someone else’s problem. While it sounds irresponsible, admitting you can’t ‘do it all’ and giving an assignment to someone else is sometimes the best strategy of all.

Can Artificial Intelligence Help?

While Miller’s methods are still valid, new help might be coming in today from an unexpected source … technology.  

While it sounds counterintuitive to look to technology to solve the problem of too much (app) technology, this might be the ticket to success in 2017.  

Artificial intelligence provides a way to make sense of information and organize it in a way that is easy to digest. One example is enterprise recommendation engines such as Microsoft Delve, which uses intelligence from the Microsoft Graph to present information it thinks we would find interesting. 

A more advanced set of tools use natural language processing and machine learning to extract meaningful topics from different enterprise apps and then match them, so people can focus on a topic like a customer, product, project or service, rather than having to toggle between many apps to piece together the big picture from small bits of information.  

These "topic computing" solutions are new, but will become an integral part of what Gartner calls the Unified Workspace, and what Forrester named the Cloud Workspace. Businesses will adopt these solutions because they help organize information the way the brain works

And when information is organized the way we think, less energy is needed to expended to get work done. That’s a winning strategy, because people naturally gravitate to easy and intuitive solutions.

It’s early days, but there is good reason to be optimistic. Because despite all the disappointment that is sure to come from the hype around artificial intelligence, helping reduce the clutter associated with information overload won’t be one of them.