Way back in the old days (early 1990s), when I worked for Target, I used to exercise over the noon hour at the Northwest Arena Club in downtown Minneapolis. I remember watching with great comic amusement as a stressed out attorney that I knew would run countless laps around the indoor track while dictating into a hand-held recording device. I imagined his executive assistant struggling to transcribe his breathless memos. He was truly the Neanderthal version of today's "multitasker."
A recent New York Times front page story is entitled, "Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price: Constant Use Takes a Toll on Concentration and Family Life." The article highlights the challenges faced by Kord Campbell, founder of an Internet start-up company. Campbell is so addicted to e-mail and the Internet that, "Even after he unplugs, he craves the stimulation he gets from his electronic gadgets. He forgets things like dinner plans, and he has trouble focusing on his family. His wife, Brenda, complains, 'It seems like he can no longer be fully in the moment.'"
Kord Campbell's saga- cautionary tale though it is- sounds familiar to most of us. Perhaps uncomfortably familiar. How much time do you spend sifting through and responding to e-mail on a daily basis? How much time surfing the web? How much do you love video games? Are you at a loss without your laptop, iPhone, or Blackberry? When was the last time you spent several hours, uninterrupted, working on a critical issue or problem?
In this age of astounding technical wizardry, smart business people still recognize that excessive devotion to our electronic lifelines can be a distraction and siphon time from more important matters. Though our ability to communicate has been vastly enhanced in recent times, our ability to focus has not. Awareness of this conundrum is key to enabling us to step back and carry out a very important leadership responsibility: taking time to concentrate.
Entrepreneur magazine published a piece in March 2010 called, "E-mail Is Making You Stupid." Business reporter Joe Robinson tells us that the average office worker checks e-mail 50 times and sends 77 instant messages daily. The typical employee loses more than two hours per day in productivity as a result of electronic interruptions. Computer chip maker Intel generated an estimate of how much money large companies lose annually from distractions caused by excessive e-mails: $2 billion. And the situation is not getting better. The E-Policy Institute warns that e-mail volume is growing by a rate of 66% per year. This electronic deluge not only costs companies dearly in productivity, it creates incredible stress, decreases job satisfaction, and diminishes creativity.
In his book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, technology author Nicholas Carr argues that the very way we think and experience the world has been dramatically altered by the Internet. Studies demonstrate that extended use of the Internet quickly and significantly alters the brain's neural pathways, creating a tendency to skim rather than read closely, become easily distracted, and learn only superficially. Research also demonstrates that people who read linear text- as in a book- comprehend and remember more than those who read text with numerous links- as on the Internet. Carr says, "Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."
Some people claim to be able to manage myriad electronic inputs and remain highly productive because they are "multitaskers." Unfortunately, their imagined ability is a myth. Joe Robinson says, "The cult of multitasking would have us believe that compulsive message checking is the behavior of an always-on, hyper-productive worker. But it's not. It's the sign of a distracted employee who misguidedly believes he can do multiple tasks at one time. Science disagrees. People may be able to chew gum and walk at the same time, but they can't do two or more thinking tasks simultaneously."
Critics point to studies that suggest that some cognitive tasks, like visual perception and sustained attention, actually improve as a result of using screen-based technologies. Many scientists, however, suggest that more brain activity is not necessarily better brain activity. Developmental psychologist Patricia Greenfield asserts, "every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others." She acknowledges that use of the Web has led to the "widespread development of visual-spatial skills," but simultaneously we have lost "deep processing" capabilities that are foundational to "mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection."
Some companies understand the new reality and are fighting back. Intel has implemented "Quiet Time" at two of its locations. During designated Quiet Time, no one is allowed to engage in messaging or phone contact. Employees are expected to concentrate and work quietly on their own. Companies such as Deloitte & Touche and U.S. Cellular have mandated restricted e-mail use and encouraged face-to-face meetings. They have also tried such ideas as "no e-mail Friday."
What can individuals do to carve out time to concentrate and get work done?
• Check e-mail only a few times daily, rather than continuously; let people know that you will check messages at 8 a.m., noon, and 4 p.m.
• Whenever possible, meet face-to-face or talk by phone as the preferred mode of communication.
• Prioritize your tasks for the day, and set aside time to focus quietly on those issues; don't simply respond to whatever is in front of you.
• Don't send an e-mail unless absolutely necessary, and resist the temptation to copy people that have no "need to know."
• Work offsite from time to time if your employer and work situation allows it.
Recognition of the potential adverse effects of the electronic bombardment that we all weather on a daily basis is the first step in dealing with the problem. Consciously and consistently creating time to focus and concentrate is the solution.