The Dangers of Distraction
8:11 AM Monday January 19, 2009
by Christina Bielaszka-DuVernay
Maggie Jackson is the author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. She recently sat down with HarvardBusiness.org editor Christina Bielaszka-DuVernay to discuss her work and its implications for time-pressed, always-on managers.
Q: BlackBerry in one hand, phone in the other, eyes fixed on several of the 15 windows open on his laptop screen: today's high-performing manager owes his superior productivity to technology-enabled multitasking. That's the popular view, at least. You see things differently. Your book argues that "multitasking" is a productivity killer.
Multitasking is sold to us as the ultimate in efficiency: supposedly, you're performing several tasks simultaneously. But multitasking is really about hopping back and forth among several tasks in quick succession, never giving deep, full attention to any of them. It's characterized by frequent interruption, and that makes it highly inefficient. Each time we're interrupted -- or we interrupt ourselves -- it takes time to get back to where we were on a project.
Q: What's the consequence of this constant interruption and disruption?
It fosters a culture of lost threads, stunted thinking, and stress. When we're constantly losing the thread of what we're trying to do, it becomes difficult to define and pursue goals. New ideas get abandoned and forgotten before they barely have a chance to develop.
When we're rushing between tasks, we don't have room for serendipity or epiphany; creativity has neither time nor space to take root. A Harvard Business Review article examined the results of a study in which 9,000 knowledge workers kept diaries recording the effects of interruption on their work; only when they had periods of uninterrupted time did they feel creative.
Creativity is not the only hard mental work that suffers in an atmosphere of information overload and constant interruption. Another study found that one-third of knowledge workers say they don't have the time to reflect back on their work: to think about what they could have done better, to consider ways to work more effectively. When we in a so-called knowledge economy can't reflect on our work, that's a major loss -- and a danger sign.
Most important, though, is how hierarchies of knowledge become flattened. When what we pay attention to is driven by the last email we received, the trivial and the crucial occupy the same plane.
Q: When our attention is "fractured" -- to use your term -- how does this affect our professional relationships as well as our personal ones?
We have a finite store of attention to pay to ideas and to people. Whether we're trying to keep up with an excessive number of information sources or hundreds, even thousands, of Facebook "friends," we've got only so much attention to spread around. When we keep up with so many ties, our ties can't help but get thinner. This gives us less energy and time for deep, considered thinking or in-depth relationships.
Q: Your book Distracted argues that our "climate of distraction" is not new, not a novelty born of email and instant messaging and, but rather something that's been long time developing.
All that we're coping with didn't start with the BlackBerry; it goes back to inventions from 150-200 years ago and the new experiences of time and space they provided us. Locomotion, for instance. The telegraph.
The possibility of doing two or more things at once has long intrigued us. Our fascination with speed and travel is directly connected to our sense today that to move quickly between places and ideas is good; to stay still and deeply contemplate one place or idea is not.
So our climate of distraction, our misplaced valuation of multitasking, does not arise solely from recent technology. But one problem is that we confuse tech savvy with knowledge generation.
Q: What are your suggestions for keeping distractions at bay?
We need to revalue stillness and deep thought, and not always prioritize movement and activity.
First, pay attention to your attention: be cognizant of when and where you are paying attention. Are you reacting to every ping? Notice when your responses to immediate calls on your attention squeeze out deeper relationships, fuller conversations, time to reflect. Notice when they keep you too rooted in the moment, and prevent you from taking time to think deeply and plan for the future.
Second, set aside slow time. I've become ferociously careful about setting aside time and space for quiet, deep reflection.
We need to take control of our attention, draw boundaries around it, instead of always reacting to demands on it, which dooms us to drown in minutia.
Q: What can leaders and companies do to help their employees stay focused?
Something I hear from knowledge workers all the time: "To get work done, I have to go home." This shows us that something is really wrong with our work environments.
Leaders need to role-model undivided attention. When you're in a meeting and you keep looking at your BlackBerry, you're telling the speaker: "You're not worth my time."
You're also saying the same thing to the other meeting attendees. By diverting your attention elsewhere, you're shattering the opportunity for that connection called "a meeting of minds." And you're serving as a poor role model for everyone who witnesses your behavior.
Companies can take certain steps to minimize distraction. Ad agencies have long encouraged people to create "white space" -- to schedule time on the calendar for unwired, focused thinking or brainstorming. A Texas ad agency created what it called "A Womb Room" for conceiving and gestating ideas. IBM has its Think Fridays. This was a grassroots innovation by a software engineering department that eventually spread throughout the organization.
How managers and other knowledge workers allocate their attention will be their chief challenge in the 21st century.