Information Overload: Show Me the Data!
Posted: June 14, 2008 Filed under: Data Hacking, Lifehackin' Links, Shout Out
(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.