Help Us, Tom DeMarco

Abbey In Your FaceAs my cell phone buzzes yet again, I find my attention drawn to the prospect of news -- real news -- in the making.  But no... it is just Fascoulius Tweezeball who is now following me on Twitter.  Minutes later, another resonant buzz announces an offer of the week from Magnanimous Vendors, Inc., who want nothing more to say "hello," and by the way to let me know about their best deal of the year on laser printer ink, announce a happy hour they are sponsoring and provide me with a new white-paper on social media that I can print myself.  If I must endure another outburst from my phone, I will probably be the one buzzing, if not shaken or stirred.  Does anyone else suffer from online overload?

Online Buzz  . . .

i'm not totally freaking out, that's what i'm doing. or not doing. or. stop pressuring me, Twitter!

                        -  Sara Burson on Twitter
                           Sep 25, 2009 5:37PM (ET)

Back when interruptions came only from phone callers, occasional knocks on my cubical door and the alluring sound of a nearby ice-cream truck, noted author and teacher Tom DeMarco wrote about the impact of disruptions on a thinker's stream of thought.  Not a pretty sight, said Demarco in his book title Peopleware, that as few as three interruptions a hour could skuttle all productivity.  Over the years, I have reflected on that notion from time to time.  Both DeMarco's research, and  more recent studies have suggested that multitasking reduces productivity. Prioritizing our communications, it seems, should be a no-brainer.  And yet, here we stand wired to our eardrums awash with information delivery wonders that interrupt our ability to consider, reason and take action.  So, is there anything we can do?  Fortunately, the answer is yes.

Online communicators can help mitigate an untidy glut of needless interruption for those we reach by choosing our medium strategically.  By asking which media will be effective rather than trying to use them all, we can save members of our target audiences time and aggravation.  Likewise, determining a reasonable number of touches helps to optimize communications for most effective results.  Finally, striving to communicate something truly valuable promotes a sense of welcomeness, as opposed to annoience,  among those we seek to reach.  Common sense?  True, but it is often harder to operationalize than envision. 

For example, ask yourself this question: Is it better to use Twitter to developing a following, or to send old fashioned email newsletter? The answer to this tricky question is, as you may have guessed, it depends. Once you ask where your target crowd hangs out, how easily you can find/identify them, whether you want to address them as individuals or as members of an affiliated group, how personalized you want to make it, and so on, you can more easily select specific communication tools with a set of properties aligned with the need.  By leveraging the strengths of the right media, you may be able to communicate more effectively with less media.  We hear almost daily how big a job it can be to apply every conceivable new tool in the box -- an effort that can sap your time and strength.  Which ones to choose, and for which purposes is a good question, and unfortunately one that will require more than a single blog post to address.

Like online communicators, individuals can take action to prevent hoards of incoming messages from interrupting their work and robbing their productivity.  Back in 1987, DeMarco suggested that we "bring back the door" to create personal spaces and times for thinking.  Anyone can do the same today by choosing diversions carefully and perhaps (gulp) going offline for an hour or so, or turning cell phones to quiet (to eliminate interruptions to ourselves) rather than vibrate (to eliminate interruptions to others).  Applying different online tools for different types of interaction can also help reduce the strain of pervasive communication. Consider using text messaging, voice or chat for more urgent communication needs, email for important but not immediate responses and social networks or blogs for more leisurely interaction.   By recognizing that every communication does not require immediate consideration and response, individuals can create for themselves more of the personal spaces that DeMarco identified as being useful.  As individuals begin to create their own places and spaces for contemplation -- in a world of pervasive communication, norms will begin to develop for the frequency, importance and expected response times associated with different media.  Will prioritizing communication fully address the information overload problem?  Probably not, but I don't have time to thoughtfully consider that point right now... I just got a text message announcing half-priced cones at a nearby Ice Cream shop. Taking the kids -- gotta go.