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Is Shared Attention Making Us Dumber?

Here’s the third (and last) post on productivity, as promised.

Strapped for time? Quit multi-tasking and start single-tasking, experts say. Ignore that advice and you might actually grow dumber (their argument, not mine—more on that in a bit).

Author Tim Sanders, a former Yahoo! exec, blogged some time ago about a former co-worker who “slowly strangled his group with ineffectiveness.” “He grazed on e-mail, surfed the Web, hacked away at a spreadsheet and talked on his speakerphone—all while meeting with his direct reports,” Sanders describes. “He thought he was being super effective. In fact, he was hopelessly diluted (or deluded).”

A report by Intel Corporation, published on FirstMonday.org, reveals that people switch projects every 11 minutes, taking a whopping 25 minutes to return to the original task and recover their train of thought (23 percent of those tasks are never resumed on the same day). Studies commissioned by Hewlett-Packard showed IQ levels for distracted or overloaded workers dropped by 10 points, indicating that shared attention actually makes us…well, dumber.

My last Google search on this topic reveals that lots of experts agree that multi-tasking is highly overrated. Tim Ferris, who penned The Four Hour Work Week, explains: “Divided attention will result in more frequent interruptions, lapses in concentration, poorer net results, and less gratification.”

I’m convinced they’re right, although I’m having a hard time curbing my multi-tasking habit. Why not open a second browser window while the first one loads? (Oh, yeah, because I’ll end up clicking on something and lose another 15 minutes. Never mind.) And what about the ringing phones and well-meaning co-workers who don’t think twice before buzzing you through the intercom or stopping by to chat?

Well, here are some of my attempts toward single-tasking:

Challenge #1: Focusing on one thing at a time

I wish I could insert a brilliant trick here, but I’m afraid it’s a matter of plain, old self-discipline. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about e-mail & phone batching, which certainly helps.

A friend once told me of her “folder” method: She has a folder for each project. According to her self-imposed rules, she can only have one folder open at all times, and before she picks up a new folder, she must “close” the previous project properly and put that folder away.

Again, however you decide to tackle it, it’s a matter of self-discipline—no way around this one.

Challenge #2: Handling unsolicited/unforeseen interruptions

This morning, I uploaded the wrong files to a web site, for the whole world to see. As I frantically tried to correct it, a co-worker walked up, wanting to talk. I tentatively asked, “Could you give me just a moment? I messed something up and if I look away I’m afraid I’ll have a hard time retracing my steps.” He assured me that was no problem and graciously waited for me to finish. I managed to complete a couple of steps in about 30 seconds–just enough so I could pick up where I stopped more easily. Ok, I thought, that didn’t hurt.

Later, I’m the one walking into another co-worker’s office. She greets me by asking, “Could I just finish this e-mail so I can give you my full attention?” Hey, I tell myself, she’s single-tasking—cool. And like co-worker #1, I’m happy to wait a few seconds.

Granted, this approach won’t work every time or for everyone. So here’s another tactic: Save your comments, questions, etc., for your co-workers so you can address them “in bulk” at an appropriate time, as opposed to interrupting them every 20 minutes. Gently encourage them to do the same: “Geez, I feel bad you have to get up and interrupt your work so often. Would it help you if we get together later this afternoon to talk about all of these items at once?”

Here’s how we’ve put that one in practice: A telecommuting staffer used to call non-stop—our staff would go to lunch and then have 2 messages–each–from the poor guy. So we told him, “These are great points/ideas. Why don’t you save them all for our team meeting? That way we’ll make sure nothing slips through the cracks and we’ll get everyone’s input at the same time.” “Ok, sounds good,” he said, and that stopped the phone calls. (Well, almost.)

I’m often trying out new ways to maximize my time and efforts. Still, I’m most effective when I start the day off right: praying for guidance, meditating on Scriptures and getting my attitude, goals, and thoughts straight for the day. As unusual as that might sound to some, I’m not alone. Best-selling author Penelope Trunk recently blogged about new research data that shows “girls who go to church work harder than other people” and “feel more positive about their work.” Along those lines, more than one million copies of Too Busy Not To Pray, by Bill Hybels, have sold since its release in ’98. (I recently expanded on that thought here).

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these concepts. What makes you more effective?


2 Responses

  1. Single tasking definitely is important. Yesterday pretty much all I did was respond to stuff from others, that’s all well and good, but what it essentially meant is that I wasn’t running my own schedule. I was going where the schedule took me. It’s very important to tune out the distractions and focus on one thing. That’s probably why my best work yesterday was when I spent an hour getting started on one of my essay intensive finals after everyone else was in bed.

    For information workers especially, there are a lot of rabbit trails you can start down at a moments notice. That’s why when the deadlines are really looming, I turn off email and everything else and just get stuff done. Deadlines are nice that way, because they force you to concentrate.

    I also think Penelope was right, and the statement just might go for boys too. 😉

  2. Thanks for the visit and input, Michael!

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