Tuesday, January 17, 2020


Thanks to Leon at lifehack.org, I discovered an article in The Herald, a Scottish newspaper. The article is written by Brian Donnelly and called "Why modern offices only let you work for 11 minutes."

Donnelly's article is based on a report, The Cost of Not Paying Attention, written by a research team headed by Gloria Mark and Victor Gonzalez, of the University of California. They found the average worker spends just over two hours per day (28% of their time) dealing directly with interruptions of one kind or another, working for around 11 minutes between interruptions. But here's the real issue: on average, people take around 30 minutes to return to full concentration on their original work after being interrupted. On that basis, one interruption could be enough to provide a chain-reaction of lost concentration for the rest of the day. No wonder so many people find themselves finishing work each day without having achieved much of what they intended.

As Donnelly says:
It has reached such an extent that workers are becoming locked in what was described as a mire of multi-tasking, and one expert said there had been a tenfold rise in the number of people suffering from what he called work-induced attention-deficit disorder…Workers in the study were juggling an average of 12 projects each, a situation one subject described as "constant, multi-tasking craziness".
Multi-tasking is a silly myth that destroys people. You only ever have 100% of your attention available (often not even that, given other common distractions like working out how long until lunchtime, or wondering if your latest infatuation will call, or if the cat has been sick on the kitchen floor again). Split your attention between only two simultaneous tasks and you'll be forced to deal with each with around 50% of your attention. (If you boost attention to one of them, the other must lose a corresponding amount: 60:40, 70:30, or whatever).

Now imagine trying to juggle 12 tasks simultaneously. By my arithmetic, that gives each task an average of 8.33% of your attention. What do you think should correctly get around eight percent of your attention? Musing on what to have for dinner? Too little. Thinking about tomorrow's weather? Possibly. Doing a serious piece of work? Are you crazy?

Yes, you are if you rely on multitasking to see you through. It's useless as a serious tool to help deal with overwork. In fact, it often makes things far worse.

What should you do instead? Donnelly offers advice from an unexpected source:
Donald Trump, the entrepreneur who once negotiated a book deal in 15 minutes, believes in slowing down and focusing when the office gets too frenetic. He said: "I will literally take a breath and allow things to settle a bit. I also set aside quiet time each morning and evening for reading and assessing."
Now there's a person you wouldn't expect to be practicing some of the ideas of Slow Leadership.

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Dave Pughe-Parry said...

I found your piece both interesting and disturbing. Dr Ned Hallowell is a highly respected psychiatrist specializing in AD/HD. His comments in the source article resonate strongly with me.

I have written a piece on my blog "Conversations in my Head" highlighting just how serious a problem distraction is for non-ADDers, and therefore, how much more serious for ADDers. There is a link to an audioclip I created last year that dramatically illustrates the effects of being distracted.

Thanks as always for your insightful and well-researched articles.

1:45 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Dave. It will be helpful to many people. I'm glad you're finding this site of positive benefit.

2:53 PM  
Anonymous said...

Our office is very chaotic with constant interruptions, often caused by genuinely urgent events. It's become an established method, that to get any work that requires a concentrated effort done, people work from home. Nobody questions it anymore, not since they've tried it and found out just how much they can accomplish in one day. At the same time, they're just a phone call or IM conversation away.

12:00 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Hi Anon

Yes, many people find working from home is the only way to get things done. But isn't that a sad comment on the way businesses allow their offices to operate?

I understand some urgent events are genuine emergencies, but if they happen frequently and still cause chaos, surely something needs to be done to address the problem? If people feel they have to stay home to get enough peace to work, they're solving the businesses' problem themselves -- and allowing the company to duck responsibility.

12:37 PM  

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