Interrupted by technology…

The Past:

The phone rang, then the cell phone, a texts came in, there is a conversation happening on Facebook, Ping – something from twitter, a co-worker just IM’d me, the emails keep popping up in the corner of the screen, and then someone walked into my office.

Now –

I work from home. I can control my environment! Yet much of what interrupted me still exists. Writing takes focus as does researching. So as an exercise in procrastination I thought I would research the science around interruptions. The way most of us handle interruptions is to swear that we are multitasking. We aren’t.

The Myth of Multitasking

Most of us now know that we don’t really multitask – what our brain does is switch between tasks very fasts. So fast in fact that it looks like we are doing two things at the same time. Like all human traits – some of us do this switching better than others. However, it isn’t optimal behavior and on some level we all know this.

But there is hope – a recent study published in the journal Neuron states that we can train our brain to get better at multitasking. But we are still simply learning to switch between tasks quicker – we are not developing dual core processing.

So we can get better but then there is the problem that too much multitasking causes breakdowns in our decision making.

Our lives are full of interruptions and processing interruptions can become difficult. That too is a task and one that we have to process quickly. Research is showing that the more people use tools of interruption (CrackBerry’s make it high on the list although all you iPhone lovers your there too) the more trouble they have deciding when to focus on an interruption or let it go.

Does that mean that interruptions are addictive? That the constant change in direction is somehow stimulating something in the brain?

A fascinating study published in 2006 exploring the “Social Implication of Ubiquitous Wireless Email Devices” looked at a small company that provided BlackBerrys for nearly 90% of their staff since 1999. What they saw was a burling of the lines between business and home, and expectation to be “always-available”, at the same time as partners in the firm found it a way to get more done, achieve more transparency in their business dealings and have more control. Yet the BlackBerrys became a device of constant interruption, effecting meetings, vacations, and general business life.

We don’t have to react to everything – but often we try to.

That stream of emails, tweets, texts, and IMs that come into us – how many are actually time sensitive and project related as opposed to all those other pieces of information that clutter our lives. Yes – the cute pictures of animals doing funny things with witty captions is a nice way to bring a smile to our day but how much time did we just lose? And did you go back to what you were doing or did you decide to read some more emails, send a text, tweet something, or surf the web?

The general rule of thumb is that once interrupted it takes between 20 to 40 minutes to get back to the level of concentration that you were at when the interruption occurred. (Different studies have different time factors – personally I think it has to do with the complexity of the core task.) The interesting thing is – how many of us go through our work lives these days able to commit 20 minutes to a specific task. An article in Newsweek puts the amount of time the average High Tech worker focuses on a project before being interrupted at 11 minutes. Worse off, IT workers are switching direction every 3 minutes. The research done with the company full of BlackBerry addicts had people checking their BlackBerrys every “every seven or eight minutes”.   

Who closes the office door, puts the phone on silent or do-not-disturb, closed down Outlook and works?

I tried – and it backfired on me. Within one week I was getting feedback that I was “unreachable” and “not in the office” because I wasn’t seen and being seen. But I was getting lots of work done… but no one noticed because in our environment face time was used to measure productivity and cooperation. “Drop everything and help me!” was not an uncommon cry. But I’m uncertain of the productivity value it brought – it may have build a can-do lets dig in and get it done atmosphere – but it also led to very long days for those who had highly complicated projects. They could only get them done early in the morning or late at night.

So then work-life balance goes out the window. Wasn’t this what we thought being connected anywhere any time help us with. We wouldn’t have to make the choice between family and work – we could do both. But in doing both we are engaging in neither. Several of the studies and articles I read discussed a sense of “partial-participation” in life. We never sink down to a level of true focus, we are multitasking so fast that we don’t focus or take time to connect with others, we use the buffer of the iPhone, Facebook, or Twitter to find some strange place between closeness and distance.

It will take us time to figure out how to deal with this – the overwhelming amount of information flowing under our fingertips, the blurring of lines between work and home, and adapting to a world where we are interrupted every 8 minutes.

Personally I love the access to information, the feeling of having my finger on the pulse. But I also like to ponder things. That takes time, silence and a closed door. I’m not sure where we are going with all of this and I am sure that we are not thinking much about the social and physiological consequences of it. All the new toys are just too much fun!

~ Tess


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