Information overload and why multitasking doesn’t work


Executives everywhere struggle with the mass of responsibilities, projects, reports and meetings that add up to information overload. The only option, they reason, is to multitask.

There is just one problem with that approach, writes Douglas Merrill, former chief information officer at Google Inc.: It doesn’t work.

With a PhD in psychology and cognitive sciences, Merrill has the credentials to tell us how the brain functions in a stressful business environment and how to organize our thought processes for success.

“Multitasking usually makes you less efficient,” he writes, because “the brain is especially inept at memorizing bits of information.”

Merrill is co-author with James Martin, a technology writer, but gets the most attention. He fuses scientific understanding with practical experience gained at Google and, after that, as president of digital business at EMI Music until last March.

This background has led him to identify 21 principles of organization to help minimize confusion and exhaustion. Some of them, such as “only keep in your head what needs to be there” and “stick to using tools you already know” are rather obvious.

More valuable is his advice on frequent delegation and co-working as a way to minimize stress.

Merrill warns of the dangers of information overload in stifling decision-making, an ironic position given that at Google he helped create a whole array of digital tools to help us amass even more information.

One of the key problems is that our short-term memory cannot deal with more than five to nine things at the same time. Overburden our short-term memory and we forget things and make mistakes.

The key is to accept our brain’s limits and create organizational systems that help us focus on what is important when we need it.

There are some simple ways to help our memory deal with the chaos and frustration created by dozens of tasks vying for our attention.

One is to streamline. On Monday morning, for instance, combine reading over financial statements with back-to-back meetings on related financial matters. Tuesday afternoon, focus on two projects that involve the same technology or client. The less frequently you have to unload all the detail regarding a specific business problem from your mind and reload a different data set, the better.

You should also clear your mind between tasks or you will constantly be fighting against your own cognitive limits, Merrill says. “Meditate. Practice yoga. Go for a walk.”

The key to not feeling overwhelmed, we are told, is to absorb only information that directly affects the goals we want to achieve. Sound advice, but one wishes the author explained more precisely how to do that.

One of the book’s best anecdotes tackles the bane of modern business: the meeting.

At Google, many people used laptops during meetings to capture key ideas, which made them less productive. In capturing what was said three minutes earlier they would lose focus on what was being said at that moment. So laptops were banned and people were allowed to leave when the rest of the meeting did not really involve them. It felt strange at first, but it worked.

The book’s most refreshing aspects are that the descriptions of how the brain works are in layman’s terms. Its main shortcoming is that its lessons largely apply to those who already work for enlightened and creative companies -- still a small minority in today’s workplace.

Richard Evans writes for the Financial Times of London and other publications.