Some people think that what we experience as information overload is really a kind of reaction to multitasking. Apparently our brains are not set up to efficiently support multitasking. In fact, we aren’t really able to pay attention to more than one thing at a time. Instead, we rapidly switch our attention among multiple things. Inevitably we will do a poorer job at those things, and they will take longer to do . Researchers have found that switching attention causes you to lose your mental connections to what you were working on, and that it takes time to restore those connections when you switch back to what you were doing. This could create stress, that feeling we call “overload.”

So why are we doing so much multitasking? Somehow we have the illusion that if we are multitasking, we are getting more done. Some people appear to be addicted to multitasking. They attend meetings, compose documents, check mail, chat, and check news feeds all at the same time. They constantly need brief new injections of information or they get bored. Our brains can take in information at a much faster rate than real time speech or video can dish it out to us, so we try to soak up information from multiple sources at a time. This condition has been noticed and given labels such as online compulsive disorder, and pseudo-attention deficit disorder. Some even think that those who indulge have even developed shorter attention spans. They can’t deal with even brief moments with no information. This probably describes many of us who are reading this blog! And yet, although we suffer from this self-imposed condition, we experience it as information overload.

Researchers have identified interruptions as a contributor to information overload, and at PARC we are beginning to explore technological assists to help people more quickly recover their lost context as they switch among tasks. We even think we may someday have something to offer the information junkie – better information! But you’ll have to stay posted on that one. 

Guest blogger Teresa Lunt directs PARC’s CSL research organization, which has a wide range of research activities including ubiquitous computing; embedded sensor networks and ad hoc networking; security and privacy; control software for printing systems; bioinformatics; and ethnography for organizational environments and technology design.