Information Overload and Email

Technology has been useful in enhancing our ability to communicate. The printing press, telegraph, telephone, and facsimile have all helped improve the speed of communication. Email, document scanners, and cellular phones have bumped up the speed and accuracy of our communications significantly. Blogs, wikis, websites, and social media are useful in getting information out to the masses, and have continued the evolution of communication in our society. Though all of these are significant improvements, a problem has developed as a result. We may be suffering from information overload.

Information overload affects us in different ways, and some may hardly notice the effects. For those that receive large volumes of email, information overload can reduce productivity, and effectively slow communication. In a recent study in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, the authors explored the background of information overload, and sought to introduce methods for coping (Soucek & Moser, 2010).

The large volume of email can be attributed in part to the ease of use. A “snail-mailed” letter takes more time to produce, send, and arrive at its destination. Email arrives almost instantly. The cost to the sender in terms of time and effort is significantly lower than the cost of sending a physical missive. Though the cost to the sender is low, if the recipient does not have an adequate method for sorting incoming email, the recipient may experience a much higher cost (Soucek & Moser, 2010). It is here that one of the problems of information overload emerges. Workflow may be interrupted, tasks may be overlooked, and information may be lost (Soucek & Moser). Other problems may stem from the quality of the message.

It is easy to send large, comprehensive messages by email. The email is not always structured cohesively, as a formal business letter might be structured (Soucek & Moser, 2010). The informal tone may lead to miscommunication, and the tone may be misinterpreted. The expected response, or the time frame for this expected response may be unclear. These issues can result in increased processing time, further reducing productivity.

Two solutions may be useful in addressing these problems – improving processing capabilities as recipients of emailed communications, and reducing the volume of messages (Soucek & Moser, 2010). Information may be organized into folders, and filters can be set to help channel information into a location where it will be more readily seen. Gmail allows for extensive filtering and tagging, which can be useful in processing and prioritizing incoming information. Your favorite email application or service may have similar features. The topics of reducing email volume and improving processing capabilities may be useful as part of a technology or communication training program. Learning how to manage incoming information may also help shape the way messages are sent.

In the preceding blog post, Julie Tausend covered some basic methods to improve email communication. This is a useful start, and if you have not read the post, you may find it useful. Another useful post on the issue may be found at the busines blog, The Atlantic. The academic article discussed throughout this post can be found here.

Email communication is changing, particularly in the workforce. There is an increased need to change the way we do things in order to increase productivity and reduce information overload. Fortunately, there are many ways to deal with the problem. The sources provided above should be a good start. If you would like assistance in reducing information overload, be sure to contact a member of the Information Services team. We will be happy to help.


Soucek, R., & Moser, K. (2010). Coping with information overload in email communication: Evaluation of a training intervention. Computers in Human Behavor, 26(6), 1458-1466. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2010.04.024