Blackberries, Multi-tasking, and Information Overload

Posted April 28th, 2011 in Uncategorized

Two recent observations prompted me to think about a topic broader than just the life sciences: the information intensity of the world we live in and some of the unhealthy behaviors it has fostered.

I met with a biotech entrepreneur last week who said she was pleased with how a fundraising meeting went with a new prospective VC investor.  “We got 90 minutes with the whole partnership and I didn’t see any of them use their blackberries!” What sad times are these when entrepreneurs measure the interest of potential investors in their deal as the inverse of their blackberry usage.

A second related observation is about how blackberries and similar web-enabled devices have changed biotech conferences: they’ve become forums for multi-tasking, allowing you to play with your blackberry while the speaker or panel rambles on about personalized medicine and other banalities.   Ever look around the audience?  Often more than half the room are on their devices.

I guess there are positive elements of this device-enabled connectedness: Xconomy’s Luke Timmerman just highlighted the value of Twitter feeds from biotech meetings, and I agree with him (and follow him @ldtimmerman).   But the bad side of this connectedness is that no one pays attention.  10 years ago the audience would have at least faked listening to a speaker or panel, perhaps while doodling, and then engaged in a Q&A session.  Today most speakers and panels end up seeing the tops of a lot of heads, as the audience looks down at their emails.  One could argue its just letting the “market” vote on whether a speaker is interesting: if it is, folks won’t read their devices, if it isn’t, they will.

Its clear that during meetings bberry usage isn’t modeling good behavior, and I do try to resist the urge to look during team sessions with entrepreneur and in board meetings, though I’m guilty of sneaking a peak once in a while.  Internal meetings I’m frankly less disciplined, especially when one of my colleagues is rambling.  We did have our first “no device” partners meeting this month and we all actually survived.  But biotech conferences?  Sadly I’m right there with the rest of the audience full of headnodders, half-listening, half-scrolling through the 100’s of emails and Twitter feeds I think are important.  But they probably aren’t, and if I’m attending the conference I should try to focus on it.

All this brings up the bigger point about information overload today.  We’ve all been duped by promise of productivity these connected devices imply, but I’m becoming convinced most of these devices don’t make me more productive or useful, just more busy and inefficient.  And annoyed at the size of my inbox.  My favorite time is becoming my long daytime flights back from Europe or to the West: its just me and my stack of scientific papers, BioCentury, In Vivo, and other great reads.  But wireless is coming to all flights soon, and it will destroy the last sanctuary I have.

McKinsey published a great piece in January 2011 in their Quarterly on “Recovering from Information Overload”.  It hit home with me, and is especially relevant in light of the anecdotes above.  Cliff notes version:

1. Multi-tasking isn’t workable nor productive.

  • Switching costs slow down the brain.  We can’t bounce from one stream to another without paying a mental penalty.  Trying to participate constructively in one activity while ‘tasking’ another isn’t doable.  Like those “Board of Director calls” where moments of silence exist because everyone’s reading other stuff on their computers.
  • Multi-tasking kills creativity. The human brain can’t make connections across different contexts (a key for creativity) without time for marination of the ideas.
  • Multi-tasking feeds into anxious, addictive behavior.  Dopamine spikes in the brain during multitasking, similar to other addictions.  I’ve only been on Twitter since December, but the urge to check for interesting tweets is real.  Knowing that 50 emails probably arrived during a a morning meeting makes me anxious to sneak a peak.

2. Coping with information overload requires discipline.

  • Focus. “Don’t overeat at the intellectual café”.  A great quote from the article that frames up the problem: information gluttony isn’t healthy and prevents one from having the time to digest meaningful content.
  • Filter. “Don’t engage every piece of email, don’t reply unless its important”.  Easier said then done, but a worthy aspiration.
  • Forget. “Get mental downtime”.  Allow your brain to check-out.  I thought this was what martini’s were for on Friday night, but perhaps a longer more enriching shutdown is worthwhile.

Its worth reading this McKinsey piece, if you have the time.  Perhaps while you multi-task with something urgent.



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