I’m sorry… What was I saying? Oh right, attention deficit. I’m trying to focus, but with all these distractions it can be hard.
Phones ring, emails chime, instant messages pop-up, someone knocks, the Blackberry buzzes – the competition for our attention seems to increase at a logarithmic pace. Studies show that for every serious interruption it can take between 15 to 25 minutes to get back on track. How are we able to accomplish anything? The New York Times reports the work interruption studies of UC Irvine Professor, Gloria Mark:
Beginning in 2004, she persuaded two West Coast high-tech firms to let her study their cubicle dwellers as they surfed the chaos of modern office life. One of her grad students, Victor Gonzalez, sat looking over the shoulder of various employees all day long, for a total of more than 1,000 hours. He noted how many times the employees were interrupted and how long each employee was able to work on any individual task.
When Mark crunched the data, a picture of 21st-century office work emerged that was, she says, “far worse than I could ever have imagined.” Each employee spent only 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted and whisked off to do something else. What’s more, each 11-minute project was itself fragmented into even shorter three-minute tasks, like answering e-mail messages, reading a Web page or working on a spreadsheet. And each time a worker was distracted from a task, it would take, on average, 25 minutes to return to that task. To perform an office job today, it seems, your attention must skip like a stone across water all day long, touching down only periodically.
And how do we cope with our attempts at time management? I used to laugh at my wife and business partner, Imbi, when she would ring her computer screen with post-it notes. Mary Czerwinski, a Microsoft Research Scientist, pursuing the same research as Mark discovered that this was a common approach to coping:
When Gloria Mark and Mary Czerwinski, working separately, looked at the desks of the people they were studying, they each noticed the same thing: Post-it notes. Workers would scrawl hieroglyphic reminders of the tasks they were supposed to be working on (“Test PB patch DAN’s PC – Waiting for AL,” was one that Mark found). Then they would place them directly in their fields of vision, often in a halo around the edge of their computer screens. The Post-it notes were, in essence, a jury-rigged memory device, intended to rescue users from those moments of mental wandering.
One of my techniques (and I’m not a prime example of effective “Getting Things Done”) in the past, was to use multiple computer screens. In a former office, I had two 21″ monitors – plus I had my laptop on the desk. I arranged the screen real estate so that I could track and manage the things I needed to get done, while working on my main software tools. (Which, at that time were Media 100, After Effects and Photoshop.) Czerwinski’s studies bore the effectiveness of this out – with productivity gains of as much as 44% for task completion.
Today, I use a combination of Backpack, iCal and my cell phone to help me get tasks done. I dump work information into Omni Outliner. I use Furl and del.icio.us to cache and tag web pages that I use for research. Entourage is my email client – until I can find the time and inclination to move to Mac’s Mail app. Gmail is used as a place to store important documents – accessible from any computer. I have not found the perfect system to become more productive. And I’m not sure there is, in fact, a perfect system.
The search continues, however, for the Holy Grail of time & task management. Some think they’ve found it in David Allen’s Getting Things Done. Merlin Mann’s site, 43Folders, tracks the tools for the GTD “cult”. I subscribe to his RSS feed. And one of these days I’ll finish the book. Just as soon as I get a few more things done.
Now what was I supposed to do next…