When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

25 March 2007

The interrupt-driven life

Several research reports, both recently published and not yet published, provide evidence of the limits of multitasking. The findings, according to neuroscientists, psychologists and management professors, suggest that many people would be wise to curb their multitasking behavior when working in an office, studying or driving a car.

These experts have some basic advice. Check e-mail messages once an hour, at most. Listening to soothing background music while studying may improve concentration. But other distractions — most songs with lyrics, instant messaging, television shows — hamper performance. Driving while talking on a cellphone, even with a hands-free headset, is a bad idea.


In a recent study, a group of Microsoft workers took, on average, 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks, like writing reports or computer code, after responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages. They strayed off to reply to other messages or browse news, sports or entertainment Web sites.

“I was surprised by how easily people were distracted and how long it took them to get back to the task,” said Eric Horvitz, a Microsoft research scientist and co-author, with Shamsi Iqbal of the University of Illinois, of a paper on the study that will be presented next month.

“If it’s this bad at Microsoft,” Mr. Horvitz added, “it has to be bad at other companies, too.”

Slow Down, Brave Multitasker, and Don't Read This in Traffic (New York Times, March 25, 2007)

The collaborative nature of the modern workplace, especially in technology, seems to doom us to constant interruption. If I'm in a meeting, and especially if I'm meeting with a customer, it might well take me more than an hour to respond to an e-mail--it might take me more than a day--but in general, because of the nature of the work I do (proposal management), I am in constant contact with my colleagues, and I live in a world that is both deadline-driven and "interrupt-driven," to borrow (and misuse) a technical term of art.

Waiting an hour to check e-mail, ignoring IMs, or letting voicemails pile up just isn't an option. If I'm in the office and there are no meetings on my calendar, my co-workers feel free to just walk directly into my office and start describing their problems, and vice-versa... it's how things have to work.

It is absolutely true that long, uninterrupted stretches of time are required for work that involves heavy concentration and focus. I've done technical and marketing writing for so long that I can do it with one hemisphere of my brain (I'm not saying which one) tied behind my back, but if I'm working on something new and different, I leave the room with the humming and beeping electronics, turn the cellphone and Blackberry off (or mute the ringers), and sit in a quiet room with a notebook, a fistful of sharpened #2 pencils and a cup of strong coffee.

I recently worked on one of my favorite kinds of jobs -- an information architecture project, where I was working with a couple of very bright colleagues to design a new document storage and retrieval system for the office.

My final "deliverables" took the form of Visio diagrams and hierarchical Word outlines... but all of the design work involving skull sweat was done with a Ticonderoga on a really big pad of graph paper.

In a quiet room.

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