Two of my favorite productivity & time management books are 18 Minutes, by Peter Bregman, and Getting Things Done, by David Allen. Especially in combination, I’ve found they work pretty well as philosophy+tactics for doing a lot of stuff, the stuff I actually care about, in a reasonable number of hours (and without working weekends). I’ve read both books several times, and I routinely refer back to them for inspiration when my life or my work changes shape.
Here’s a thing I’ve been wondering lately: what if we’re approaching a point where productivity fails, where just scanning the inputs received and making decisions about them takes up more than the hours in the day? What if it’s not just a question of focus, and deciding what to do, and finding the right context to do it? What if the things we could potentially focus on, and decide about, and find contexts for, are so numerous that just looking at them overwhelms us, and takes up all the available time?
Here’s an example: I don’t actually know how many email I receive each day. Some dozens or hundreds of them I have set to auto-remove from my inbox; some dozens or hundreds are available for me to look at, if I specifically choose to search for a keyword they’d trigger on; some much smaller number actually wind up in the inbox I check. The same is true of meetings; and mailing lists; and I haven’t even started on the articles and news stories that might be relevant; or social media.
This sounds like simple information overload, but it’s not quite that. It’s more like noise in the system, amplified by a feedback loop. The noise increases over time. A lot of productivity is about filtering through noise for signal… but that assumes the signal is still in existence, and that it’s possible to actually get through the noise. What if it isn’t? The thing about global human connectivity is that the theoretical limit of communication is every single person broadcasting to every other single person, all the time. That’s billions of inputs for each individual to receive.
When a system is so overwhelmed with inputs or requests that it spends all its time and energy dealing with them, the system can no longer do anything else. It essentially freezes. In a computer or internet context, this overwhelm is called a denial-of-service attack. When the inputs come from multiple systems at once, that’s called a distributed denial-of-service attack. A DOS or DDOS attack is intentional and malicious; it’s one system trying to take down another.
But. In the realm of human connectivity, the cause may not be malicious, but the metaphor holds. More and more of us are connecting, all the time. What if our human urge to reach out, to broadcast, to share and shout across the void*, becomes a person-to-person DDOS attack of our own?
Do we paralyze each other? Do we choose to limit the signals we receive? Do we learn a new method of surfing them?
* And yes, I’m aware that there’s more than a little bit of irony in posting this online. I’m doing it anyway.