Multitasking: Self-imposed Information Overload?

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.

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  1. Michael J November 19, 2008 - Reply

    I wonder if you are considering the role of expected time of response to the stress creation of multi tasking.

    The thing is if you know you are only on incoming and their is an seamless way of storing, but there is no necessity to respond the stress level goes down while the info accumulated is maximized.

    It sort of works like this in the context of the Google RSS reader.
    First, I decide what I want to scan.
    Click, that folder.
    Then scan the headlines.
    If it’s mildly interesting,
    I click open the headline.
    If it’s more interesting, I go to the site.
    If it’s not more interesting, I click share.

    This keeps going. if the article is really interesting. I “blog this” or send the link to a friend that I think would be interested.

    My sense is that the real stress is caused by the micro decision that calls for an immediate response. Once that response is enabled, the stress can be significantly mitigated.

    Interestingly, I find the best way to retrieve an item of interest is the connection to the person I emailed to, using Gmail to do a person search.

    Just wanted to share my experience in the hope that you might find it interesting.

  2. Soiniutty December 28, 2008 - Reply

    dangerous influence buddy. craving to get more from your side 🙂

  3. Michael Josefowicz December 28, 2008 - Reply

    @ Soiniutty I think you asked so….

    Here’s my story:
    Everyone has the need and ability to control incoming information. Mostly people control it by not listening. It’s a signal vs noise problem. Lots of noise masquerades as signal. By the time you figure out which is which, some more noise comes at you to further distract.

    One rational response is to close off the input ..not listen. But the problem there is that it becomes impossible to pick up very weak signals. Innovation and real customer focus comes from being sensitive to weak signals.

    So..the trick is to use “interestingness” as the real time indicator of whether a signal deserves to be stored. Then when there is a little quiet time, you can figure out why some is “interesting” in the first place.

    The cool thing is that internet tools can be used to store “interesting” without taking up any space in your head, which is busy during the day, deciding “interesting” or not “interesting.”

  4. Charlie Curtis July 10, 2009 - Reply

    In my job as a CIO, I’ve been working on tackling information overload with mixed results. My company, a professional services firm, suffers more than most because of a couple of infrastructure problems that arose from a couple of mergers.

    I’ve been trying to get my colleagues to acknowledge that attacking our information overload problem will improve our overall knowledge sharing collaboration efforts and also contribute to our bottom line. But some people here just don’t understand the extent of the problem.

    I just read about information overload awarenesss day and I’ve signed up our company as a participant and designated site – I hope this will get my point across to my colleagues and help them understand what we can do to improve our overall position relative to information overload. For others in my position (and I’m sure there are many of you) I encourage you to do the same, Information is available at

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