Interruptions, productivity and technology

I seem to have less time than ever to get on with things and I’ve wondered how much technology has had to do with it. IT’s benefits are clear, more access to more information, better quality of presentation, more communication and sharing of ideas and so on. But there’s a cost too – there’s always more information to be found and one can go on and on editing and adding additional images or other ways of enriching documents such as presentations; it’s also too easy to get distracted. The ruthlessly single minded cope but the rest of us struggle.

An article in New Scientist “How Interruptions Can Destroy Your Day” Alison Motluk, 28 June 2006 confirms my perception. She cites a University of California at Irvine, study which found that on average information workers being studied ‘got just three sustained minutes of work in before being diverted’. And ‘Glenn Wilson at the Institute of Psychiatry in London found that being bombarded with emails and phone calls has a greater effect on IQ than smoking marijuana (New Scientist, 30 April 2005 p 6)’. A psychiatrist is quoted as saying that in the last few years he is seeing an increase in people who claim to have developed attention deficit disorder in adulthood – ‘patients complain that they are distracted, forgetful, disorganised and impulsive – and they can’t get anything done … the symptoms mysteriously disappear when they are on holiday’. Sounds familiar!
The article goes on to introduce software being developed by Microsoft. ‘Priorities’ is designed to examine salience and urgency of emails and phone calls to prioritise and allow interruptions only as programmed. It learns by observation and training. Eric Horovitz, a senior Microsoft researcher comments “It works extremely well at discriminating the urgent from the non-urgent .. it’s better than a live secretary.” Another project described tries to predict a person’s interruptability. Related Microsoft research produced a device, Busybody, which “spies on you, taking note of things like head position and activity level. It then pools information to help decide whether you are in a state to receive any non-urgent communications.”

The article includes eight ‘tips for surfing the wave of interruptions’, including
· “Get a bigger monitor (more on this in a posting to follow). A Microsoft study found it helped people to work up to 44 per cent faster – one of the biggest boosts to productivity yet.” Having read this I’ve set up a 17” monitor to work as a ‘single’ desktop in conjunction with my laptop screen (very simple to do using the screen settings). This allows my primary focus, such working on a Word document, to remain on the monitor while other programmes I might turn to briefly, such a email or browser, appear on the laptop screen; if I want to spend time on the other application it can be dragged from the laptop to the monitor. Feels like magic to begin with!

· “Put up a clear “do not disturb” sign, or an obvious signal that you are busy. Insist that colleagues respect it.”
· “Be prepared: if an interruption is likely to take longer than 2 minutes, add it you your to-do list and go back to what you were already doing.”
· “Keep a notebook open and write down what you are doing as soon as you are interrupted.”

The theme of interruptions, productivity and technology will be continued in another posting and will refer, inter alia, to Clive Thompson’s “Meet the Life Hackers” New York Times, 16 October 2005 which covers similar material to the New Scientist article but in more detail. Also (Merlin Mann’s site about ‘personal productivity, life hacks, and simple ways to make your life a little better’)


About nickzsc

I'm a civil engineer and a lecturer in the Department of Real Estate and Construction at Oxford Brookes. Amongst others I have interests in problem-based learning (PBL) and improving the learning experience through the use of various technologies including 'Virtual Learning Enviroments', wikis and blogs. To be continued
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