How to Measure Information Work

Continuing my exploration of information overload, in this piece, I’ll further develop the argument that it is not the real problem, but a mis-framing of a different problem (call it X) that has nothing to do with “overload” of any sort. Most people who start their thinking with the “information overload” frame look outward at the information coming at them. One aspect of the real problem is terrible feedback control systems for looking inward at your work. On the feedback side of things, we measure capacity for work with the wrong metric (headcount, or in shorthand managerese, “HC”). I’ll explain why HC is terrible at the end of this piece (and I’ve also written a separate article on HC).

So, can you measure information work? Yes. Here is a graph, based on real data, showing the real cumulative quantity of information work in my life during two years and some months of my life, between January 2004 and about March 2006.

Quantity of work over one year

Figure 1: Quantity of work over one year

Calibrating Work in the Raw

Figure 1 is all about calibrating your measurement systems. The first thing you’ve got to understand about measuring information work is that at the ground level, one size does not fit all. There are ways to abstract away from the specific nature of your work, which I’ll get to, but you still need to understand it first. The measurement methods I’ll talk about later rely on data artifacts generated by meta-work (stuff like to-do lists and calenders). But meta-stuff must be calibrated against what it talks about. A typical next-step in your life may be an hour long, while one in my life may be five minutes. You won’t know until you look.

Every sort of information work transforms some sort of information artifact into some other sort of information artifact. Paul Erdos famously defined mathematics as the process of turning coffee into theorems, so in his case plotting gallons of coffee against number of theorems proved might have worked as a first pass.

My graph above reflects throughput patterns within my particular style of academic engineering research in modeling and simulation during that particular period (I was a postdoc at Cornell during this time). Coffee at Stella’s in College Town got transformed into written notes. Notes got transformed, in this case, into computer code with which I ran experiments, which produced data files. The data then got transformed to research output documents (papers and presentations). Here’s how I measured this throughput, each artifact in its own unit, with the cumulative total at the end of the year normalized to 1:

  1. NOTES: The cumulative number of pages in my research notes files. This is the best measure of “ideation” activity I could find.
  2. CODE: The megabytes of code and data in my working programming folders. This is one coarse measure of the amount of actual “work” being accumulated in computing work (today, I’d use a code repository and count check-ins)
  3. WRITING: The megabytes of working documentation in my computer “research” project folder. This measures the rate at which the “work” in 2 is being converted to completed output such as “papers” or “presentations”
  4. MGMT: This graph shows the accumulation of workflow management collateral data, such as to-do lists. In this case, I was using a tweaked version of David Allen’s Getting Things Done model (once the project got to a phase where I needed to get management overhead out of my head).

You can ponder the particular shape of the graph (clearly my research style that year followed a classic research pattern of ideation, unstructured execution, structured execution, rather heavy on front-end ideation — I read and thought for almost 8 months before writing a line of code), but the broader points to take away are:

  • Calibrating flows of information work requires an ethnographer’s eye for local detail and narrative, combined with a data-miner’s enthusiasm for diving in and examining the concrete artifacts of information work.
  • You do have to actually look at real data, at least loosely. Sketching out graphs like the ones above hypothetically, based on your memory, or guessing based on how you think you work, measures your assumptions and biases, not your work.

Some people seem to have the discipline to maintain things like food diaries and other real-time journals of what they did. I don’t, so I adopted a leave-footprints-and-backtrack model (saving dated copies of working computer folders, which I then data-mined manually). Whatever you do, occasionally, you need to go through some sort of calibration exercise to get a data-driven sense of what your work looks like at the ground level. Without your sense of your work grounded in reality, the meta-measurement systems I’ll talk about won’t work. You don’t have to be as maniacally detailed as I was (I was doing this out of research curiosity, not because I am a life-hacker), but you do need to listen to your work.

Why Measurement Matters

In my previous article I used the metaphor of the Vegas buffet. Just because there is more food than you can eat, you don’t need to overeat. You just need to eat enough to satisfy your needs. But people still do overeat, and Brian Wasnick provided the most compelling reason why in his account of the psychology of eating, Mindless Eating: poor feedback control. On the measurement side, you overeat because you measure the wrong things (how much you have left on the plate for example, or whether your dinner companion has stopped eating). Let’s apply the same logic to information.

Yesterday I had over a thousand articles in my Google Reader. Today I have none. I got to this insane level of information-processing productivity using the magic “Mark all as read” button.

The reason: I am currently “full.” My throughput systems for all my projects are currently full enough of goal-directed work flowing through, as well as maximum-capacity reactive work in response to opportunities/threats from competitors, that I have no bandwidth left for any more. Yes, a high-priority development could bump my top priority items off, but my stuff is currently at a critical enough level that I can take the calibrated risk of missing key information (Black Swan risks for downside, unprecedented opportunities for upside).

In other words, yeah, there might be a tray of chocolate cake I didn’t spot in the buffet, and potentially, some salmonella in what I am already digesting, but there is little enough I can productively do about either that I can ignore the buffet.

From Calibration to Feedback: Measuring Meta Work Throughput

All information work is different, but information meta-work comes in surprisingly few varieties. By this, I mean collateral information that you use to keep track of your information work. The only condition is that you have to have some visible system. If it’s all in your head, the only thing you can use is subjective self-assessment of mental stress on a scale of 1-10 (you can measure that using a rather heavy-weight technique called experience sampling). But if you have something even as basic as a to-do list, you can measure meta-work, which is much simpler than either measuring the contents of your head or your ground-level work.

Remember, this is only useful if you also have good calibration with respect to your ground-level work. Otherwise you won’t be able to meaningfully understand your meta-work measurements. Note from Figure 1, that I only have measurement data for part of the period, when I was actually being structured in my work habits. In research, you tend to swing between more and less structure.

Like I said, meta-work comes in few varieties, and mostly uses the same artifacts: lists and calenders. During the organized part of my two odd years, I was using GTD in a fairly disciplined way, but you can do something like this with any reasonable system so long as it is plugged into enough of your life, and has some meaningful semantics (measuring your grocery shopping list length every week is obviously silly — that’s only a small part of your life).

For those who don’t know much about GTD, all you need to know for the purposes of this article is that it involves several lists and a calendar. The lists including a next-action list at the lowest level, followed by lists at increasing levels of abstraction: a project list, something called a someday/maybe list, and something called an areas of focus list. The non-list artifact in the game is a calendar. I also had two special-purpose lists called Job Search and Course (for a course I was teaching for part of the time).

Here’s what the action looked like (this is effectively a drill-down into the MGMT part of Figure 1.)

Figure 2: Meta-Work Trends for GTD system

Here are some highlight points for you to ponder:

  1. The number of next-actions stays fairly constant after an initial upswing as ‘collection’ habits become more efficient.
  2. This coarse look at the data does not reveal ‘task churn’ – the addition and deletion of tasks, a typical list-re-edit changes something between one task to a third of the entire list.
  3. Note that during the first half, calendar activity is present, but this vanishes in the second half. Like many full-time postdoctoral researchers, my “hard landscape” of calendered activities was mostly completely empty when I was not teaching. Barring meeting with students at scheduled times, I rarely had any time constraints. A busy MD’s data would look very different, with a lot of calendar activity.
  4. I got married on August 12, 2005 and moved into a new apartment on August 14 and 15 – the time coincides with the peak in calendar activity. Around that time, I was also submitting several papers to conferences and getting started with new students for Fall.
  5. Note that the activity on both the Next Actions and Projects lists tails off in the second half, but a special list (my Job search list) is very active and growing

The key point to note is that this sort of measurement is trivially easy to do. I maintained all my lists in my email, and whenever I made a change, I’d save the old list in a folder and email myself the new one, which stayed in my Inbox.

Understanding Churn

Churn in the meta-data of your life represents throughput at the ground level of your life. Here is one view of the churn from my data:

Figure 3. Measuring churn in your life's meta-data

Figure 3. Measuring churn in your life

To understand how churn in your meta-data maps to productivity in your ground-level data, you need to analyze and interpret. In this case, you see the profile of a fairly healthy execution-oriented phase of my life, with very little questioning of Big Life Priorities. My Areas of Focus list (which is a high-level list containing stuff like “Work, Family, Health”) barely got touched. I clearly was focused on the now rather than the future, since there was little daydreaming showing up as someday/maybe.

What might an analysis of an angsty teenager’s life reveal? The meta-data you might have to look at there would be different, since angsty teenagers typically don’t use organization systems. iTunes downloads (lots of death metal?) and books bought/checked out from libraries might work. Those might reveal deep questioning at fundamental levels. Cell phone bills and Facebook feeds would work today.

I got these graphs through some laborious data entry, going through all my saved historical lists, but for real-time feedback, most of the time you actually need very little information — you just need to keep one eye on the length of your lists, another on the amount of churn, and the third (yes, we’re going meta here, you’d better have a third eye like Siva) on whether your systems need recalibration with respect to your ground-level work.

Measurement, Control and Information Overload

Let’s bump back up to the theme of information overload and how the idea of measuring your work relates to it.

The connection is simple. If you have a good, noise-free and accurate sense of what’s going on with your work, in a throughput sense, you’ll have a very accurate idea of how much information you need, of what sorts, and when.

This will give you the confidence to control the flow. You have always had the ability (ranging from the nuke/delete all/mark-all-as-read buttons, to more selective filtering tools), but it is the confidence and trust in your sense of the state of your work that will give you the courage to use the levers available to you. Focusing on the efficiency of filtration/recommendation systems is pointless — the state of the art is good enough already in most ways. The real bottleneck is the inefficiency of measurement on the demand side.

Of course, this has been a story told around some selected highlights of a complex period of my life, so there is a lot I didn’t tell you, but a word to the wise is sufficient. Look inward at your work-hunger before you look outward at the information buffet out there.

A Footnote on Headcount

Okay, I couldn’t resist that bad pun. I promised to explain why headcount is a stupid way to measure capacity for information work (though it is a smart way of measuring some other stuff).

The answer is as old as Frederick Brook’s The Mythical Man Month, the classic about managing programming projects. Programming is the prototypical type of individual-level information work. Brooks noted that unlike in manufacturing, adding headcount to a delayed software project delays it further, rather than speeding it up, as a naive “headcount” model might suggest. In software, it actually makes more sense to ask at an individual level whether potential new team members will speed things up or slow things down.

What’s happening here, and why do we still use HC? The specific reason in programming generalizes. Software people know that a good developer will outperform a mediocre one by orders of magnitude, so the “interchangeable parts” idea fails a basic sanity test. The other reason is that information work is so collaborative and creative that more people adds more interactions, and much of the complexity lies in managing interactions, and the extra contributions must first work off that interaction overload deficit.

So why do we still use HC in corporate capacity planning around information work, besides force of habit from the manufacturing era?

The answer is simple — HC isn’t used for planning at all. It is used for signaling priorities and formal assignment. If I tell you that you are 50% on two projects, that is actually just a signal telling you that your output on both fronts better be comparable in magnitude, and that your overall performance had better be at least average, compared to your peers. Effort fractions work better for doing this than simply saying you are on these three projects in this order of priority, because it signals how abstract priority translates to value delivery expected.

Used this way, HC has nothing to do with the content of work and how long it might take to do it. I talked about this sort of stuff at length in a previous piece on talent management. You and I can’t fix corporate management systems overnight, so what can you do to manage capacity and commitment levels? That’s the control story, which I’ll get to one of these days.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. venkat, you have to be one of the most thorough minds i have ever encountered. i will do the yogi version in ten words .. information is just thoughts, and you are not your thoughts.

    nice redesign on your blog

  2. Great post, extremely interesting!

  3. At a high level the best way of measuring information work might be by tracking results, but that leads into the difficulties of results management. From a low level attention time might be a reasonable measure. Individuals, managers, and group members might have different, possibly conflicting, ways of seeing and using any of these metrics.