Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Warning: interruption overload

By Rhymer Rigby

Published: August 23 2006 03:00 | Last updated: August 23 2006 03:00

Not long ago, information overload was the bane of office life - a deluge of data inundating our workstations and destroying our collective productivity. Then we discovered that so much information on the internet was rubbish and that we could safely ignore any e-mail addressed to more than three people. Now, though, there is a new workplace affliction: interruption overload.

People used to be able to interrupt you at work only by phoning or walking into your office. Now they can do so by e-mail, instant messaging, mobile phones (with voice calls and text messages) and BlackBerries or personal digital assistants.

"The profusion of communications channels is definitely harmful for productivity, because it leads to more interruptions," says Jakob Nielsen, an expert on information technology usability. "For people doing knowledge work - the most highly paid employees - every time you are interrupted it takes 5-15 minutes to fully recapture your train of thought and get back to being completely immersed in your main task."

There is a growing body of research to support this view. When Basex, a New York-based IT research company, conducted a study on the effects of interruptions on 1,000 office workers, it found that they spent an average of 2.1 hours a day dealing with interruptions (including the time taken to "recover" afterwards).

In the UK, a study by Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist at the University of London, examined how volunteers carried out tasks, first in a quiet environment and then in one where they were subjected to a barrage of calls and e-mails. In the second scenario the volunteers' effective IQs were reduced by 10 points; for comparison, in similar studies that compare regular cannabis users with a control group the drop is usually five points.

It is not just interruptions and their immediate aftermath that sap workers' usefulness. "The continual partially interrupted state [CPIS] is a much larger issue than many people think," says Adam Boettiger, online marketing expert and author of Digital Ocean, a news­letter on time management.

"For starters, it places you in an environment where you know you'll be interrupted and so your productivity suffers - even if you aren't. You're always expecting something else." CPIS also tends to spill over into leisure time, which means you never fully recharge.

But, like many things that are bad for us, interruption can be addictive. "Handling just one more e-mail, instant message, SMS, or phone call gives you a quick hit," says Mr Nielsen. "You feel good, you have accomplished something. But in the long term, you accomplish less the more you are ­interrupted."

One company that sought to do something about this is phones4u, the UK mobile phone retailer. Two years ago, John Caudwell, its founder, famously banned e-mail from the workplace. In spite of the media hype at the time, the company says the ban was very short-lived and intended to draw employee attention to the fact that some people were spending hours a day trawling through unnecessary e-mail. "The other, less reported side of it was a holistic communications strategy," the company explains. "Of course, we do use e-mail, but relatively sparingly. We don't use instant messaging and a lot of our communication is done face to face."

There is a limit to what can be accomplished electronically before interaction in "meatspace" must take place, says Chris Kimble, a lecturer in computer science at York University. "We did a study with Hewlett-Packard that showed that while there were certain things people do very well online, you get to the point that in order for [the working relationship] to continue to grow, people had to meet each other."

No one doubts that e-mail, mobile phones and instant messaging are capable of raising productivity, but they can only do so if we control them, not vice versa. A common complaint is that people may send dozens of fragmented messages when a single phone call would do.

Part of the solution, says Mary Czerwinski, principal researcher at Microsoft's Visualisation and Interaction research group, is to "build systems that protect users' attentions and to use tools that maintain task flow". Examples of this include "elegant peripheral displays which allow you take 'snippets' of tasks you want to monitor and drag them to the periphery of your screen." By monitoring users' brainwaves while they operate such systems, she adds, "it's possible to see which kind of notifications are highly disruptive and which are not".

There are also much simpler things users can do to break the cycle of addiction, says Mr Boettiger. They might devote discrete chunks of time (say 30 minutes using a desk-top egg timer) to the single-minded pursuit of a specific task. They can turn off the automatic alert on e-mail and check it manually, say, three times a day. They can wait an hour to return a call to someone when they can give them undivided attention, rather than doing it immediately while also typing an e-mail and worrying about finishing a document.

For those who really want to get the message monkey off their backs, however, Mr Boettiger recommends going rather further and taking "cyber-vacations".

"Every six months I take seven days to two weeks when I disconnect completely from the net and work with just a phone and voice-mail," he says. "The whole idea is to unplug completely: it gets very stressful sucking on the information fire-hose the whole time." Sometimes, he adds, he even does a little manual filing with pieces of paper and cardboard folders.

In fact, archaic though they sound, paper-based systems have their advantages. As interruptions become ever more numerous, they become individually less effective. Ten years ago, if you sent an e-mail to a chief executive, you might well have received a personal reply. Now, unless you know them personally, it will probably get buried, beneath hundreds of others. In the "attention economy" the value of e-mails is rapidly approaching zero.

If you phoned the CEO, you might fare a little better. But if you really, really wanted to make them pay attention, how about sending a handwritten letter?

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