Information Overload: Show Me the Data!

(note: If you’d like to be able to understand how your business spends time in a way that doesn’t step on the individual privacy of your employees, drop us a line)

Matt Richtel has a great piece on the (front page!) of the New York Times this weekend called “Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beasts“, which happens to mention RescueTime. The best followup analysis of the article can be found at 43Folders (home of GTD zealot Merlin Mann).

I thought I might offer a bit of the data that we have that didn’t make the cut of the article and pose a few questions that are worth considering.

First, let me say that for those who are interested, I have a footnote at the bottom of this post describing how we collected/aggregated this data.  It’s decidedly not scientific, but I think it’s interesting all the same.

For those who aren’t familiar with us.  RescueTime is a free tool (for most of our users) that allows individuals and businesses understand exactly how they spend their time with no data entry.  Essentially, it measures what is “in focus” (or “on top”) on your computer screen, and how long it’s there and allows you to do analytics on that data.

Here are the highlights of what we found that we think is interesting:

  • The average work day in this data slice was 6.71 hours in front of the computer.  We don’t yet track meeting and phone time (but that option will be available soon!)
  • The average IM user shifts to an IM window *77* times per day (avg of 11.5 times per hour or once every 5.2 minutes).  As an aside, I was at 130 per day on average and quit cold turkey.   I now have a work IM account with 4 people on my friends list.
  • Average number of unique web sites visited per day is 40 (that’s domains, not pages).
  • Average number of unique applications touched is 17
  • 26% of time was spent inside a browser
  • 61% of time was spent on internet dependent stuff (web sites plus applications who pull/push data from the internet)…  So unplugging is not a very practical option.

We took the top 125 or so apps from this slice of data and categorized them. Here is what we found:

  • Communication Apps (IM, Email) 38%
  • “Output” Apps (MS-Office style apps, design apps, database apps, etc): 34%
  • Media, News & Blogs (news, blogs, video, audio, photosharing): 14%
  • Social Networking (Facebook, MySpace, Twitter): 5%
  • Games, Entertainment, & Shopping: 4%

It should be noted that just because communication apps make up 38% of the hours spent in the top apps doesn’t mean that people spend 38% of their time there.  When we crunch the numbers, we find that about 18% of time is spent within email and about 6% of time is spent within chat.  About 2% of time is spent within social networking.

The Big Question:  Does this Really Matter?

Stowe Boyd asks the question (well, he goes a bit farther and says it doesn’t), and it’s worth asking.  He says that “…connected people will naturally gravitate toward an ethic where they will trade personal productivity for connectedness: they will interrupt their own work to help a contact make progress. Ultimately, in a bottom-up fashion, this leads to the network as a whole making more progress than if each individual tries to optimize personal productivity.”

Stowe is going the straw man route– and is characterizing people who are interested in personal productivity as people on an “information assembly line” who would never interrupt their own work to help out a peer.   That’s taking the idea to a ridiculous extreme.  To be fair, there are certainly productivity zealots who take it to an (ultimately damaging) extreme.

We’ll concede that there are lots of people who benefit a lot from all of these great new tools and information sources.  And that there are lots of people disciplined enough to handle the temptations they offer.

But, IN GENERAL, we’re going to go out on a limb and say that alt-tabbing to an instant message window 77 times in a 6.71 hour period (the mean average in our data set) is in most cases, not good for personal or team productivity.  That going to your inbox and clicking send-receive 50 times a day like on of BF Skinner’s rats is bad.  That a river of interruptive (but incredibly interesting) news and links (from RSS, IM buddies, relatives via email, etc) is bad.  And we’re saying that this stuff is happening more and more.

Obviously, this all goes out the window when the person in question is disciplined and makes the right choices.  Sure, you can ignore interruptions when you’re in the work zone.  You can chose to NOT interrupt your peers when you’re NOT in the work zone.  You can choose not to forward that hilarious YouTube video to the whole team.  You can choose to stop your work to help a peer when you know it’ll help the team, and you can choose to ignore a peer when you know their need is less important and immediate than what you’re engaged with.  Like most utopian dreams, that works great when everyone in a business is driven, mature, respectful, and mindful of what they do.

We don’t pretend to know how to solve these new challenges we’re facing, but we’ve got some ideas.  We tend to agree with Merlin, when he says:

“Bottom line (and I’ll never stop saying this): stop trying to eradicate human communication problems by introducing waves of new technology or made-up rules of social engineering. A company with email problems is also experiencing people problems. Until you understand why the wetware isn’t working like expected, don’t go nuts with top-down technology solutions and over-clever edicts.”

Focus on the “wetware” and you’ll make great strides.  But I’d add that if a business or an individual has a time spending problem (just as when they have a money spending problem) you shouldn’t shoot from the hip.  You’ve got to see the numbers, you’ve got to know what you’re spending and where you’re spending it and (for motivational purposes) you’ve got to measure your improvement (hey, and that’s where RescueTime comes in!).

Footnote, more about the data: The data that I’m taking about is a slice from our aggregate data of over 40,000 users.  We took a subset of users who spent at least 4 hours a day in front of their computer but less than 12.  Our userbase consists now of individuals and businesses who actually CARE how they spend their time, so you can assume that skews the data.  The vast majority of these users are free users who found us on their own and signed up.  Users are 81% Windows, 15% Mac, and 4% Linux.  53% are from North America  31% from Western Europe.


7 Comments on “Information Overload: Show Me the Data!”

  1. This factlet of switching to instant messaging every 5.2 minutes is quite interesting. I would love to see this (and similar statistic tidbits integrated into the RescueTime interface), because apparently not time spending is the issue but time allocation and focus.

    Another question I have is: What is the standard deviation for the number of unique applications touched and websites visited?

  2. Radek Pilich says:

    Thank You guys for this post, it was a real kicker for me!

    I am starting to believe that computer multitasking is a productivity myth, and I am getting much better results when managing distraction properly. I like IM, and often it might see feasible to multitask, but it “works” for me only when I am chatting with a person I have really good connection with and when I am working on something that is quite personal and engaging for me. When anything is less than than, it multitasking productivity goes down rapidly when compared to single-tasking.

    Thank you for Stowe Boyd’s quote as well. This is something I don’t usually realize consciously. Now, let’s make my contacts put this quote on their desktop wallpapers :)))

    In any case, I am going experiment for next few days with IM off, and I have also blocked access to websites that I tend to check more often than necessary. Simply said, am learning single tasking and managing distractions.

  3. [...] Rescuetime, een gratis online tool die meet hoeveel tijd je aan verschillende applicaties besteed, deelde haar cijfers over information overload: [...]

  4. R. Moose says:

    Thank you for the interesting article.

    If someone goes to talk to another developer on the team about the project, is that wasted productivity?

    If someone calls another developer on the team about the project, is that wasted productivity?

    If someone emails another developer on the team about the project, is that wasted productivity?

    If someone sends an SMS (txt msg) to another developer on the team about the project, is that wasted productivity?

    So, why is sending an IM to another developer on the team automatically assumed to be a waste in productivity?

    Now, letting just about anything interrupt you can be an issue to productivity, however, the developers I work with use all these tools to communicate since we are at various locations. There is an understanding to not let it interrupt but to check these messages when possible, and not to abuse the “Instant” messaging.

    I did get written up on a job because I was having a discussion with a developer at another company via IM, because I was using IM and not a phone. This developer was in high demand and preferred IM My boss felt IM was just for playing around.. .and would not remove or amend the write up even after I showed him the logs of all the conversations I had with the other developer (and showed that I have saved him time and money by using this method.)

    Guess I am a little touchy about the subject of IM not being a productive tool in the right hands.

  5. [...] you are focused on and track what you’re allocating your time to. They actually publish statistics on their [...]

  6. heri says:

    I would really be interested if you could also compute rate of growth for these categories. such as the group facebook/twitter