How do I get rid of infomania

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"It became incredibly easy for people to bombard each other with information," says Zeldes, a principal IT engineer. "We had a total disaster within a year."

Since then, Zeldes has been fighting against "infomania" - according to his description, a paralyzing state of mental overload, caused by backlogs in email processing in combination with constant interruptions such as email notifications, cell phone ringing and instant messages.

For a while, Intel was content with what Zeldes calls "first generation solutions": advocating courses in email etiquette and sharing advice on how to manage email effectively (Zeldes has one of those solutions called "YourTime," by the way available for download free of charge at www.itsharenet.org). These fixes usually help a year or two, then they'll run dead.

Last year, Zeldes and two colleagues took a closer look at the again rampant infomania in order to get a handle for a more drastic intervention. In doing so, they found something shocking.

"Knowledge workers spend around 20 hours a week emailing, and a third of that email is useless," says Zeldes. Worse still: 70 percent of all emails are processed within six minutes of their arrival, the average knowledge worker is interrupted every three minutes. "If you have to switch between two tasks, you pay for it with cognitive reorientation," adds David Sward, Senior Human Factors Engineer at Intel and one of Zeldes' partners in the Infomania project. Bottom line, they found that Intel employees waste an average of six hours a week.

The Intel management was looking for measures to increase efficiency anyway and jumped on the ideas of Zeldes and his colleagues. Later this year, the world's largest chip maker will be piloting various next-generation solutions, promoting what Zeldes calls "technologically assisted behavioral changes."

For example, Intel will try a client-side e-mail program that will intervene if the user violates e-mail etiquette. (For example: "If you really want to answer 'To all', check the box next to each name you actually need.")

Solutions are also to be tried in which employees can switch off e-mail and instant messaging temporarily, methods for e-mail "rest periods" such as saving messages on the server and delivering them only once an hour, an "e-mail-free Friday" "(or any other day of the week) and the relocation of company-wide status reports and organizational announcements from push e-mail to RSS feeds. The aim is to incorporate the successful programs into an overall campaign to change communication behavior.

Zeldes was particularly surprised by the amount of attention his work outside of Intel received. "We've got calls from hundreds of organizations, from the U.S. Army to the Salvation Army and everything in between. This is the beginning of an awakening."

Of course, Zeldes and his men also work with the handful of companies that are examining even more radical solutions. The Intel expert emphasizes, however, that you don't need a special team or a multi-million dollar budget to combat the problem. "You only need one thing," says Zeldes. "A manager who decides that something should be done about it." (tc)