Monday, October 27, 2008

Tangled Up in Tasks


CFO Magazine - July 2007 Issue -

Multitasking and frequent interruptions are inescapable aspects of office life, but they can exact a toll.
Edward Teach
July 01, 2007

According to Basex Inc., a knowledge-management research firm, work interruptions cost the U.S. economy at least $650 billion a year. Analysts Jonathan B. Spira and David M. Goldes reckon that 28 percent of the typical knowledge worker's day, or 2.1 hours, is consumed by unnecessary interruptions and recovery time.

Surely, skepticism is appropriate regarding such a staggering sum (amounting to 5 percent of the gross domestic product). Still, there is justified concern over what researchers call "work fragmentation," associated with interruptions and multitasking.

For example, in a 2005 study, researchers at the University of California at Irvine found that information workers at an outsourcing company spent an average of 11 minutes on a project or task before they were interrupted. Once diverted, it took them 25 minutes to return to the original task. Spira and Goldes cite a British researcher who administered IQ tests to different groups of people; the group that was distracted by E-mail and ringing telephones scored an average of 10 points less than a control group (and 6 points less than a group in another study that smoked marijuana before taking the test).

Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., a well-known expert on attention deficit disorder (ADD), says he increasingly sees people who exhibit symptoms of what he calls ADT, or "attention deficit trait."

An Inverted U
Of course, multitasking can be a boon as well as a bane. According to a 2006 study by researchers at MIT, it can lead to higher productivity. Sinan Aral, Erik Brynjolfsson, and Marshall Van Alstyne studied workers at an executive-recruiting firm, reviewing data on more than 1,300 projects over a five-year period and monitoring more than 125,000 E-mail messages for 10 months. They found that workers' revenues were "a function not only of how fast they work, but also of how much they multitask." Heavier multitaskers were able to complete more projects than others, even though their speed per project may have been slower.

But the MIT researchers also found that the relationship between multitasking and productivity is shaped like an inverted U. More multitasking means more output only up to a point, "after which there are diminishing marginal returns, then negative returns to increased multitasking." They noted that previous research has shown that multitasking is associated with "cognitive switching costs," which means that as tasks pile up, efficiency drops and errors multiply.

Another 2006 study, by researchers at UCLA, suggests that multitasking can lead to less-than-optimal learning.

These results have implications for learning in multitask situations, suggesting that, even if distraction does not decrease the overall level of learning, it can result in the acquisition of knowledge that can be applied less flexibly in new situations," concluded Karin Foerde, Barbara J. Knowlton, and Russell A. Poldrack.

A World Gone ADD
Edward Hallowell says that multitasking can be desirable, adding variety to the job. But he believes the kind of multitasking in which attention shifts rapidly from spreadsheet to E-mail to Web page to BlackBerry can be damaging. Hallowell's most recent book, CrazyBusy (Ballantine Books, 2006), offers "strategies for coping in a world gone ADD."

For those too busy to read the book, here's what Hallowell told CFO about how to calm down and regain focus. One, take control over your life, while accepting that total control isn't feasible or desirable. Two, prioritize: decide which tasks matter the most. Three, rebuild the boundaries that technology has broken down. "Close your door and turn off the cell phone," he says. "Decide that your day does have an end point, that there are places where you can't be disturbed."

In the end, getting organized, setting boundaries, and learning time-management skills aren't enough, says Hallowell. Emotions are important, too, and people underestimate the role they play in peak performance. Get plenty of sleep, eat well, and make sure you have some positive human contact during each day, he recommends.

"You're not a machine," says Hallowell. "Managing your brain is right at the heart of what success and failure hinge on." And happy brains, he observes, "think better."

Edward Teach is articles editor of CFO.

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