by Larry Magid
This article appeared in the August 1, 2011 edition of the San Jose Mercury News
Like many of you reading this, I have to deal with a constant barrage of emails along with tweets, Facebook messages, text messages and now Google+ updates. And that’s on top of my landline and cellphone ringing as well as my dog needing attention and the usual interruptions from family members.
I work at home. People who work in an office often have to deal with colleagues stopping by asking, “Do you have 30 seconds?”
Well, even if that interruption really is only for 30 seconds, recovery time turns out to be between 10 to 20 times the duration of the interruption, according to Jonathan Spira, the chief analyst at Basex and author of “Overload: How Too Much Information Is Hazardous to Your Organization.”
Spira, a panelist at a Churchill Club event last week appropriately titled “Information Overload 2.0,” said it “takes time for the neurons to fire and it takes time for you to regain your thoughts and recapture the flow of what you were thinking.” And sometimes, he added, what’s lost cannot be recaptured.
I used to think I could manage my own often-interrupted life by “multitasking.” But except for things like walking and chewing gum, multitasking is a myth. When it comes to cognitive tasks, our brains aren’t really capable of competently doing more than one thing at a time.
While I’m sitting in front of the two monitors attached to my PC, I have a Twitter feed in the lower right corner of my main screen, my word processing document in the center and a Gmail session on the other monitor. What I’m really doing is switching my attention back and forth between these three information sources. Trouble is, every time we switch our attention back and forth, it takes a little time.
“The studies we have done,” said Spira “showed that attempts to multitask slowed people down, while studies other people have done have shown that the brain can’t really multitask.”
Molecular biologist John Medina agrees. “We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously,” he wrote in his book “Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School.”
A 2007 study (PDF) conducted by Shamsi T. Iqbal of the University of Illinois and Eric Horvitz of Microsoft Research looked at how we handle switching between computer programs. While PC operating systems and processors have evolved to the point that they are very good at multitasking, the processors between our ears aren’t so up-to-date. Iqbal and Horvitz found that “participants spent, on average, nearly 10 minutes on switches caused by alerts, and spent on average another 10 to 15 minutes (depending on the type of interruption) before returning to focused activity on the disrupted task.”
And just because you got to work clear headed doesn’t mean your brain can’t become foggy as a result of how you’re working. A 2005 University of London study, according to the BBC, found that “Workers distracted by email and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in a marijuana smoker.” And multitasking might actually be more addicting than pot. More than half of the people surveyed in that study said they always responded to an email “immediately” or as soon as possible, with 21 percent admitting they would interrupt a meeting to do so, according to the BBC.
Google Vice President Bradley Horowitz, who is managing the new Google+ project, was also on the Churchill Club panel. Horowitz said Google is trying to encourage what he called “meeting hygiene” to help people better focus. That includes times when laptops are to remain closed. I sit on the board of a couple of nonprofits and at a meeting a couple of years ago it was time to vote on something and I realized I had paid no attention to the discussion because I was reading email instead of listening to the debate.
I now try to keep my laptop closed and my smartphone in my pocket during meetings, though I sometimes slip. At other times I knowingly trade paying close attention to the people around me so that I can connect with people online.
At last week’s panel, for example, I was live tweeting and updating Google+ with what the panelists were saying, which meant that potentially thousands of people around the world could learn from the very panel that I was failing to pay full attention to. And it’s likely some of the people reading my tweets and posts were in meetings or on deadlines and being overloaded.
The problem of task switching also affects us behind the wheel. Studies have confirmed my intuitive sense that using a hands-free phone doesn’t make you safer. I have two hands but only one brain. It’s not hard to steer a car with one hand, but as I realized recently after missing a freeway off-ramp, it’s awfully hard to carry on an intense conversation and keep my mind on the road.