As I See It: Berry Berry Annoying
April 20, 2009 Victor Rozek
A story, perhaps apocryphal, made the rounds a while back about a newly hired manager. The day he was scheduled to attend his first meeting, he was running late. As he hurriedly entered the conference room, he was surprised to notice that the people around the table were all sitting in silence, with their heads bowed and their hands clasped in their laps. Not knowing what to make of this, it occurred to him that perhaps in this corporate culture meetings started with an invocation or a moment of silence. Then he noticed what was actually going on: they were all busy pounding away on their BlackBerries.
There are now some 21 million BlackBerries in use. They have become so ubiquitous in the workplace that their power to attract and multiply is reminiscent of Star Trek’s Tribbles. Unarguably, handheld personal computing devices have their place, providing a means of access to people and information that just a few decades ago was the stuff of science fiction. But as with any good thing, overindulgence can cause problems. Trying to have a conversation with someone who is engaged with a BlackBerry is like trying to get the attention of a cat distracted by a mouse: You just know that the mouse is far more interesting.
The workflow disruptions and the ensuing decrease in focus caused by such devices are creating concerns from the executive office to the Oval Office. And with good reason. Interruption overload, says Sharon Begley writing for Newsweek, can, among other things, “impair higher cognitive functions, including decision making.” As bad as impaired judgment might be for, say, medical personnel; it would be absolutely disastrous for a person assuming the responsibilities of the presidency. So when President Obama insisted on keeping his beloved BlackBerry, Begley took notice and penned an article with the provocative but absurdly alarmist title Will the BlackBerry Sink The Presidency?
Rest easy, her conclusion is: Probably not. (After all, so many of the problems Obama inherited are far more likely to mangle his presidency than a small plastic device.) But the research she cites suggests that workplace interruptions are much more frequent and insidious than we may realize. When employees at two high-tech firms were tracked by a University of California professor, she discovered that “the average worker spends only 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted and asked to do something else.” And that number applies to everyone except IT professionals. “IT workers have it worse,” she says, “switching attention every three minutes, on average.”
Three minutes! On average? It’s a wonder anything ever gets done. Microsoft, in conjunction with the University of Illinois, discovered that “people take about 15 minutes to productively resume a challenging task when they are interrupted, even by something as innocuous as an e-mail alert.” For IT professionals, the implication is that if they are interrupted every three minutes, and it takes a full 15 minutes to become fully productive again, then the best they can offer their employer is what Begley calls “continuous partial attention.”
Research also shows that interruptions prevent information from being stored properly in the brain. Incoming data are first stored in short-term memory because not everything is important enough to recall. It takes a few minutes for the mind to properly encode the information and store it in long-term memory. Interrupting that process, according to a 2004 study conducted in Finland “can cause memory loss” and “decreased memory accuracy.”
But perhaps Begley’s most interesting insight is that BlackBerry time can also negatively impact creativity. While collaboration has its place in the creative process, for most people attaining (and maintaining) a creative state requires a degree of quiet and a measure of isolation. Uninterrupted time lets the mind wander where it will, free to make surprising connections between seemingly unrelated elements; able to craft the unexpected solution, open to receiving the Great Aha!
While daydreaming has the disadvantage of resembling idleness, it can be the source of inspiration and future productivity. It is therefore ironic that down time is never built into the workday. Management wants to see fingers flying and heads bent in concentration. Understandably, it’s a hard sell to suggest that the gal with her feet on the desk staring at the ceiling is being more productive than the guy with his nose glued to the keyboard. Nonetheless, when do-nothing time is consumed with e-mails and texting, the possibility of having a breakthrough insight born of concentrated focus is greatly reduced.
There are those who will insist they can function productively in spite of the interruptions. Many are accustomed to multitasking and pride themselves on tossing their attention about like wrestlers tossing dazed opponents. And in truth, many repetitive tasks will not suffer from the occasional hand-held interruption. But not decision making or creative work, says Begley. Based on actual research rather than opinion, the author concludes that people who insist BlackBerries are never distracting are either A) “lying” or B) “their work just isn’t that hard.” As far as the President having a BlackBerry is concerned, “Yes, you can schedule a meeting,” she says. “No, you cannot craft a smart stimulus bill.”
Oops. Maybe we should take that device away from him after all.
Of course, the simple solution is to turn the thing off. If you can, that is. The siren buzzing of the BlackBerry is very seductive. Beyond having the power to arrest attention, there is a visual-kinesthetic aspect of holding and manipulating the device that is reminiscent of the coffee and smoking ritual: shake a cigarette out of the pack, tap it on the table, flick open the lighter, put flame to tobacco, take that first drag, sip, swallow, puff, then hold the familiar, comforting object between your fingers. Repeat the ritual often enough, and coffee without a cigarette becomes unthinkable.
While workplace interruptions may be no more than annoying, in certain contexts, highjacked attention has proven to be deadly. “Last summer’s crash of an airliner taking off from Madrid,” Begley writes, “was apparently the result of an interruption-induced error; 153 people died.”
Maybe Pascal was right. Maybe all of man’s problems do stem from his inability to sit in a quiet room alone. As the pace of life accelerates, there seems to be a growing terror of quiet moments; moments free of iPods, and cell phones, and BlackBerries, and television sets, and video games, and laptops, and Internet surfing. We crave the comforting glow of the computer screen, moving from distraction to distraction like a starving bee moves from wilted flower to wilted flower searching for something that is not there. People want constant stimulation and get uncomfortable when it is not close at hand. I could find no research on the subject, but I wonder how long the average American can sit quietly in his home alone without turning on an electronic device?
We’ve been pummeled by fraud, recession, bailouts, theft, job loss, home loss, and the monumental idiocy of disposing of a $10 dictator with a $1 trillion dollar war; and all we want is for someone to text us and say it’s all going to be OK.
One of the outcomes of being members of the cult of distraction is that we seldom think anything through any more (like the Wall Street bailouts, for example). We’re eager and conditioned to move on to the next thing. Life is lived in 140 character bursts. We get bored with sameness, suspicious of complexity, and confused by nuance. They’re exhausting, not the least bit entertaining, and not nearly as much fun as a fresh e-mail.
As we move inextricably toward an indoor, device-driven life, the wisdom of John Muir cries out for our attention. Muir had a connection unlike the ones we value today. “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,” he said, “places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul. Keep close to Nature’s heart and break clear away once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
And leave the BlackBerry at home.