It's rather cheeky to title an article "Workplace Distractions: Here's Why You Won't Finish This Article," as the Wall Street Journal does with its recent piece on the problems of distraction at work, but it does rather get the point across:
Distraction at the office is hardly new, but as screens multiply and managers push frazzled workers to do more with less, companies say the problem is worsening and is affecting business.
While some firms make noises about workers wasting time on the Web, companies are realizing the problem is partly their own fault.
Even though digital technology has led to significant productivity increases, the modern workday seems custom-built to destroy individual focus. Open-plan offices and an emphasis on collaborative work leave workers with little insulation from colleagues' chatter. A ceaseless tide of meetings and internal emails means that workers increasingly scramble to get their "real work" done on the margins, early in the morning or late in the evening. And the tempting lure of social-networking streams and status updates make it easy for workers to interrupt themselves....
Companies are experimenting with a few different things: encouraging workers to use the phone more rather than have endless email chains; making meetings device-free, to reduce switch-tasking; cutting down on the number of projects people have to juggle at once; or instituting periods when people could work uninterrupted.
I certainly think these things are a step in the right direction, and to the degree that they reflect an understanding among companies that there are structural and process problems that organizations need to deal with. It's also good that they're starting to recognize that work isn't just about interactions with colleagues, but that in order to contribute good ideas people need a measure of solitude to cultivate good ideas.
I was also amused by this bit (AT THE END OF THE ARTICLE, I FINISHED IT):
Businesses have praised workers for multitasking, "but that isn't necessarily a good thing," says Mr. Keene. "When you are focused on just a few things, you tend to solve problems faster. You can't disguise the problem by looking like you're really busy."
Well, all too often you can diguise the problem, both from your coworkers and from yourself: the feeling of being overworked and busy is too often a substitute for real productivity, especially if you're in a field where there aren't fixed deadlines or totally clear standards of performance ("yes I lost a million dollars on this deal, but given the way the markets are behaving, that's really quite good").
And there's a difference between switch-tasking and multitasking. As archaeologist Monica Smith argues (quite persuasively, I think), multitasking-- the ability to combine and coordinate several different activities that all build to a single goal-- is a deeply human ability, and is reflected in all the complicated things early humans learned to do-- cooking food, throwing pottery, building civilization, etc.. (She's not the only one making this argument.) Playing music is a good example: you have to remember words and notes, lyrics and chords, and listen to your fellow players and pay attention to your audience; but doing all those things, while exhuasting, doesn't feel overwhelming: you don't have a sense of "information overload" the way you do when you have three different projects and five Skype conversations.
That, in contrast, is something else: not multitasking, but switch-tasking. It's similar to multitasking on the surface, in that it involves several different things happening more or less simultaneously; but it's different in an absolutely critical way. Switch-tasking doesn't converge on a single big goal; it doesn't allow you to take insights from one activity and apply them to another; it doesn't give you clues about which task can be set aside for a second, which one really needs to be prioritized. It all demands your attention at once; you have to work hard to manage and prioritize; and the tasks often call on the same cognitive resources.
So while companies the WSJ talks about are making progress, we need to go a lot farther, and recognize how much inefficiency and cognitive waste we generate by misunderstanding multitasking, switchtasking, and the necessary balance in knowledge work between collaboration and solitude.