60 years ago Carlson carried out the first empirical study of what managers actually do but it was another 20 years before Henry Mintzberg’s study of Chief Executives, published as: “The Nature of Managerial Work“, made people realise that, among other things; “managers’ jobs are characterised by brevity, variety, and fragmentation”.
And from that study came the message that managers rarely spend more than 15 mins on any one task at their desk before being interrupted. A finding that has been more or less replicated by other researchers since then.
However back then there was no internet, no e-mail, no social networking sites. In his latest book “Managing“, Mintzberg again examines the work of senior managers (he eschews the notion of leaders) and comes to much the same conclusion with e-mails etc just being a means of reinforcing the characteristics of what managers do anyway – and they were already spending 40% of their time on communication back in 1973.
Office workers however may only have 3 minutes on a task before they are interrupted by e-mails or callers. It can actually become quite addictive e-mailing and texting and waiting to see if people have replied – almost like playing a slot machine, and 15% of people even admit to checking for e-mails in church. And according to John Freeman, author of “The Tyranny of Email“, because we spend so much time checking our inboxes or refreshing Twitter pages, we are less productive because our attention spans are shattered into tiny fragments.
Microsoft found that it can take 25 minutes to get back on task after being interrupted by an e-mail even though it might only take your brain a minute to recover your train of thought. We also get anxious thinking through the consequences of sending a message and waiting for a reply. We may not realise that checking our e-mails every 5 minutes adds up to over 1 day a week but we end up juggling at least two things at once. On the phone whilst checking e-mails, checking messages in meetings, tweeting during union negotiations, driving whilst texting (resulting in over 6o0,000 crashes a year).
It wasn’t that long ago that women claimed they were better at multi-tasking, it was their natural skill set. Now we are all at it. And some of us feel if we aren’t we are wasting our time. But how annoying is it when you are on the phone to someone and you can hear them working on a keyboard.. I recently had a conversation with a NatWest business advisor on the phone and his mobile phone went off 3 times but he wouldn’t turn it off even when I asked him to.
Yet it turns out that multi-taskers are less effective. According to research at Stanford University they focus on irrelevant information and everything distracts them. They remember nothing and get less done. They actually take longer to switch between tasks because they think about what they are not doing. They like to be scanning for and flooded with new information rather than deal with what they already have.
It’s estimated by the University of California, San Diego, that we receive 100,000 words, plus images adding up to 34 gigabytes of information a day. The result of this is that our attention span is being chopped into smaller pieces and we are losing the ability to think more deeply. It may even eventually change the structure of our brains. Edward Halliwell, a New York psychiatrist, believes that people have never had to process as much information as they have to nowadays.
He has coined the term “screen sucker” to describe people who spend so much time in front of a computer screen, mobile phone or Blackberry (which used to be referred to as a Crackberry because of its addictive nature) now replaced by smartphones. One study showed that when knowledge workers were interrupted by e-mails and phone calls their IQ dropped by 10 points – twice the drop reported for marijuana users. And he too thinks people are so busy processing information at a superficial level that they are losing the ability to think and feel and are losing the ability to connect with other human beings.
Times columnist Sathnan Sanghera was moaning about the difficulties of working from home with all the inherent distractions – although spending 3 hours on social networking couldn’t have helped. He then found the same problems working in the office but some of that was down to actually having social interactions with colleagues. But that can only be a good thing!
Originally updated and posted on SGANDA 23 August 2010: