A New York Times article reports on lots of recent research which demonstrates human minds become much less efficient when multi-tasking.
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.
I've yet to get a cell phone in large part because I view it as an automated interrupt generator device. Ditto for a Blackberry. I sometimes wear earplugs at work so as to avoid hearing conversations. I need concentration time to get real work done. Oh, and voice mail? Why give someone a place to record a message to tell you something that they'll just repeat once they finally get ahold of you? I know people who do exactly that. They are driven by a deep instinctive need to communicate and be heard.
What I want: An automated device that will take spoken language in an email or a conversation and turn it into text. One can read text in less time than it takes to listen to a slow voice mail or, for that matter, a slow person in a meeting. What, you mean zone out on what someone is saying and then read the transcript? Yes, exactly. Besides, such a device could provide a useful history of what got said and agreed to in a meeting.
Younger people lose their brain speed advantage when interrupted.
Recently completed research at the Institute for the Future of the Mind at Oxford University suggests the popular perception is open to question. A group of 18- to 21-year-olds and a group of 35- to 39-year-olds were given 90 seconds to translate images into numbers, using a simple code.
The younger group did 10 percent better when not interrupted. But when both groups were interrupted by a phone call, a cellphone short-text message or an instant message, the older group matched the younger group in speed and accuracy.
How much productivity is lost by instant messaging and cell phone conversations? I watch people all the time fielding calls in office settings from someone who would not otherwise be calling them if the caller just didn't have a cellphone. The vast bulk of such conversations (at least from the side I hear) could have happened much later or never at all.
At Microsoft each interrupt costs an extra 15 minutes for a full return to work after the interrupt completed.
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.
Years ago (15 or 20?) Tom DeMarco and Anthony Lister published a book called Peopleware arguing that workplace interruptions cost each computer programmer a substantial amount of time (I faintly recall 30 minutes) per interruption. They based this on consulting work they'd done in companies where they did test of programmer coding speed combined with having programmers keep logs of every time they got interrupted. In DeMarco and Lister's experience some companies generated so many interruptions (e.g. phone calls, nearby conversations, intercom announcements) that in the course of a normal workday the programmers had 0 hours of useful work time.
Interrupts are bad. A study based on surveys and interviews with office workers put the cost of interrupts at $650 billion per year.
The productivity lost by overtaxed multitaskers cannot be measured precisely, but it is probably a lot. Jonathan B. Spira, chief analyst at Basex, a business-research firm, estimates the cost of interruptions to the American economy at nearly $650 billion a year.
That's a lot of potatoes.
What we need: Multiple phone numbers (or perhaps an extra digit on each phone number) with priorities on each cell phone. Let the callers send a priority signal for a call. If you are busy you could ignore priority levels below 1 or below 2. For example, parents could tell their kids to use 1 when a matter of life and death and 2 when they are stuck somewhere and so on.
We also need more structure in communications so that responses get caught and put into categories and fields. Also, I really want to be able to send an email with a marker that says "Bring this email back to my attention if it does not produce a response from the first 3 people on the To: list in N days.". Make it so that one can more easily track whether tasks are getting done and answers getting generated.
Also see my previous posts Brains Can Not Process Two Tasks In Parallel and Human Brains Limited Parallel Processing Capabilities.
|Share |||Randall Parker, 2007 March 25 01:37 PM Brain Limits|