Multitasking isn’t working

As demands from work impinge ever more on our family or leisure time, it’s under-standable that we try and fight back by squeezing a bit of our personal “to do list” into the working day. After all if ‘always connected’ means working on a Sunday afternoon, isn’t it only fair that I get to argue with the electricity company on a Monday morning at work?

Or is it the other way round? Maybe it’s not that work takes any longer than the mythical 40-hour week, it’s that we can’t manage, between 9 and 6, what used to fit into the 40-hour week? What if the very technology that was supposed to make us more productive is in fact killing our productivity?

My question marks are, of course, rhetorical. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have for long been concerned with the negative effects of always-on technologies. By constantly interrupting every activity, whether work, rest or play, we end up concentrating on none of them. We lose the enjoyment of everything, including our all-important work, become irritable and lose the ability to lose ourselves in what we love. By tweeting about the moment we forget to live the moment. By stopping to read an e-mail, we lose our place in the narrative flow of the novel we so wanted to be engrossed in. And then we don’t even reply to the e-mail, leaving that to fester ‘for later’.

I blogged last month about how e-mail harmed productivity more than smoking a joint. And a Vanderbilt University study has shown that when we switch attention from one task to do something else, we increase the time taken to finish the original task by 25%. There goes your chance to get out of the office at 6pm tonight. And so arrives your excuse for doing a bit of holiday research while you’re at work – after all you’re going to be here until 8pm anyway. Except of course that the travel agent’s e-mail in response is providing the very distraction that’s stopping you leaving the office at 6pm in the first place.

It’s becoming increasingly acceptable, it seems, to take your smartphone into meetings and check up on e-mails from time to time. The result? Meetings are half as productive and so take twice as long to achieve anything (whether meetings ever achieve anything is too long a discussion to fit into these brackets).

So much for the problem: How do we break out of the vicious spiral? Well here’s my starter:

  1. Refuse any meetings before 10am. Ever. Start work at 8am. Then don’t start with your inbox, start with that discussion paper you have to write, or the thing that will really benefit from concentrated thought. Try it once and you’ll get the habit. Once in a while you’ll find a client or a colleague is mildly put out that you cannot make the 9am meeting, so try explaining why you have the 10am rule and they might even adopt it themselves. If you have a big team meeting at 9am on a Monday, then block out two hours later that day.
  2. Schedule meetings for 30 minutes. Most meetings seem to be scheduled for an hour, but that’s because people’s attention is flitting in and out. At the start of the half-hour meeting demand that no one looks at their smartphones, or pops out to take a call. Explain that the reason you’ve scheduled this for 30 minutes is to allow time for e-mails, or preparation for the next meeting, or time to consider the agenda, outside your 30 minutes.
  3. Go to your inbox at pre-determined times each day. You know when those should be and how often. I am trying to do mine now in three stints each day. Then when you address your inbox, concentrate on it wholeheartedly. Don’t look through it once to see what’s urgent, then a second time to delete some spam, then a third time to start sifting for priority.
  4. Use Twitter the same way. You cannot stay attached to the firehose all the time. So go in and ‘sample’ Twitter at certain times of day and then leave it alone for the rest.
  5. Make sure you develop rules for your leisure and family time too. If you have to work at weekends, make sure you get away from the family to concentrate on getting it done and then back to the things/people you love. Using social media to conduct a conversation about what you’re watching on TV is one thing (a really enjoyable way of sharing the experience), but trying to read the paper and help with homework and cook? Well, I’ll be back with more views on consuming multiple media in my next post. In the meantime I’m off to concentrate on a good book with no distractions.

New Eras Take Time to Dawn

The first television broadcasts were nothing more than a camera placed in front of a radio announcer. The first films ever made were shot through a proscenium arch to replicate the theatre experience. New art forms tend to lag behind the introduction of new technology.

So it should come as no surprise that, after 50 days of owning one, the iPad has not re-defined my media day. Mostly, I consume, rather than create. And on the iPad, my consumption has yet to change gear: newspapers, magazines and the odd book; web pages on the sofa; games with the children.

In this I am not alone. A survey out this week from copywriting firm Cooper Murphy Webb found iPad owners in the UK considered it best for reading newspapers and magazines. For books, it was more marked – 41% of iPad owners liked to read on the device, against 36% who preferred hard copies (the rest were other screens before you ask).

Of those surveyed I would imagine most, like me, were eager to try out their new toy on anything they could get for it. And mobility isn’t really the killer function. More than 60% rarely or never take it out of the house – just 5% always do so.

Just as film moved on from the proscenium arch shot, so the iPad will find its moment. I can already see the first sparkle of new ideas: my subscription to Wired comes alive with video, hyperlinks and animated graphics in a way that the magazine never could; my children are eagerly learning chess because the iPad is different; my DJ-friend using a turntable app to professionally mix his iTunes collection; and I am playing the (virtual) piano again.

Cooper’s survey found almost a quarter of iPad owners saying it had become their primary entertainment device. It’s inevitable that most of that entertainment was created for another screen or medium. In time, this device will change our media experience once again.

One at a time please

Check e-mail. Facebook. Read the paper. Tweet. Check voicemail. And all of that while watching TV.  We are increasingly becoming defined by connectivity.  Work and home life mingle as a result. Multi-tasking extends now into most of modern life.

Is that what we really want? Well, many people tell me that multi-tasking makes them more productive. Increasingly, scientists disagree. Even after the multi-tasking ends, Stanford University research shows fractured thinking and lack of focus persist.

“Nonstop interactivity is one of the most significant shifts ever in the human environment,” says Adam Gazzaley of the University of California, San Francisco.

“We are exposing our brains to an environment and asking them to do things we weren’t necessarily evolved to do,” he said. “We know already there are consequences.”

I see consequences in my own life. Only ten years ago I would read a novel a fortnight. Now I fill most of my reading hours with browser behaviour – the sort of material I can consume in seconds: Twitter, news alerts, blogs, e-mail.

Last summer Emily Yoffe convinced me in an article in Slate, drawing on more than 50 years of psychology experiments, to conclude that the internet feeds the “seeking” part of our brains, flooding them with dopamine, but never accessing the opioids to deliver pleasure to the brain.

Other research underlines that people interrupted by e-mail report increased stress compared to those left to focus.

Whether it’s reading a novel for pleasure, concentrating utterly on a work task or even just spending time just on a conversation with the children, it may be time to ask whether, for all our connectivity keeping us plugged in to what’s going on, we might do better to concentrate on the task in hand. For our own sake, one task at a time please.