Digital Distractions Survey: Feedback From The Field

Last week I reported on a new industry survey that looked at digital distractions at work. This week, feedback on the survey.

Last week, I wrote about an industry
commissioned by social email software vendor, that looked at the impact of (digital)
distractions at work. The
survey results generated a strong response, getting coverage in the mainstream
press such as the USA
, Wall
Street Journal
, the BBC, CBC,
as well as online sites such as Mashable. It generated a debate on CNBC last week about
whether people are genuinely distracted or whether distractions are a
generational problem; affecting older people who find it hard to
multi-task. (On a side note, I find it hard
to believe that people actually believe that younger people are really
effectively multi-tasking. This has been
debunked by scientists who looked at people’s ability to retain and analyze ‘multi-tasked’
information, and found … they couldn’t).


What I found most profound about the survey feedback was the
recurring idea that digital distractions are somehow the modern form of hanging
around the water cooler. The argument
goes, ‘people can’t be productive 100% of the time; they need to have some
downtime. Yesterday, it was talking with friends, today it is connecting with
people on Facebook. Why is it that we ignore the huge productivity
gains offered by new digital tools by focusing on the small amount of wasted
time they generate? The net result is
still hugely positive.’

This totally misses the point. The water cooler is a controlled interruption. You choose to participate or you don’t. If you have a deadline, you can close the door
and hunker down. On the other hand, when you trying to work on a document but
you need to toggle through 9 different screens to share it with a colleague, there
is no alternative; these ‘interruptions’ are an inherent part of the work
process. Alternatively, when you are continuously interrupted by new email
messages or tweets popping up on your screen, can you effectively shut this off,
so that you can focus on work? Not many of us do. And it is the impact of these interruptions
that is particularly pernicious. These
interruptions cost businesses lots of money; far more than the actual time lost
to inefficiencies. People struggle to recover
from these interruptions; recovery times are long relative to the length of the
interruption. Frustration is high. People get tired and can’t focus.

While information overload is not a new problem, a lot of
people are talking about it today. I
provided a list of some good sources a
few weeks ago
One researcher I didn’t mention but who has written extensively about
information overload and its impact, is David M Levy from the University of
Washington. Everything I have read by
him is highly recommended. Check out a video of a excellent talk he gave
at Google several years ago, entitled “No Time To Think.”


Back to the survey … one important take away is that new technology
often brings unexpected consequences. For example, just because we can work
anytime, anywhere, doesn’t mean we should. Do we really want to be texting in bed or at
the theater? Our inability to shut down has
organizational, social, and personal repercussions. Should we accept the need to have 10 windows
open to complete a simple business task because ‘that’s the way it works,’ or do
we need to take a critical look at even our best productivity tools?


I am interested in hearing your opinion. Weigh in with comments
or email.

Disclaimer: The study was commissioned by social email provider
(pronounced ‘harmony’), ( where the author of this post is an executive.


About the author

A technology strategist for an enterprise software company in the collaboration and social business space. I am particularly interested in studying how people, organizations, and technology interact, with a focus on why particular technologies are successfully adopted while others fail in their mission. In my 'spare' time, I am pursuing an advanced degree in STS (Science, Technology, and Society), focusing on how social collaboration tools impact our perceptions of being overloaded by information. I am an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology.