As Jonathan Spira pointed out at a Churchill Club panel yesterday, a knowledge workers’ value in the marketplace is their ability to think and reflect. Spira is the author of the new book, Overload: How Too Much Information is Hazardous to your Organization. In the current climate of information overload and hyper-interactivity, knowledge professionals now have only 5% of their day available for thoughtful work and critical thinking.
The panel, moderated by David Needle of the TabTimes, included Derek Dean, of the Exetor Group and author of the recent McKinsey paper Recovering from Information Overload, and Bradley Horowitz, VP of Product Management at Google who leads the Google+ product program.
Executives and knowledge workers struggle to multi-task in an increasingly interrupt-driven work environment. Actually, humans can only time-slice, not multi-task. According to Spira, if you are focused on a task, receive an interrupt (email, phone call, text message) that takes you away from your task for say 30 seconds, it takes you ten–to-twenty times the length of the distraction to recover the focused attention to the original task.
Multiply that scenario many times throughout a workday, and you have a costly productivity sink so profound that Spira says it cost the U.S. economy $997B in 2010.
Attention Fragmentation = Longer Hours
As Derek Dean noted most executives and many knowledge professionals have personally addressed this attention fragmentation issue by creating two workdays -- the ‘9-5’ timeframe when it’s understood that one is available for contact, and now, a second work-day of early mornings, evenings and weekends (and vacations!), as knowledge professionals try to carve out time for that thoughtful, reflective, critical thinking work. This kind of extended workday practice now inherent in current work life often leads to physical burnout and exacts a heavy social and emotional toll on personal lives.
As individuals compensate with this ‘always-on’ behavior, what’s often missing is a conscious corporate culture that supports the inherent need of freedom from distraction to enable knowledge professionals to engage with focused attention on their work.
Bradley Horowitz, whose background includes a stint at the MIT Media Lab and founding Virage, said that considerations regarding attention are significant factors in the design of Google+ and other products.
Online systems haven’t modeled real relationships, and we all lead ‘faceted’ lives – family, friends, colleagues, bowling buddies, café cohorts. The design of Google+, he says, is meant to provide relevant ‘destinations’ for content that an individual produces, as well as focused filters for consuming information coming in. Innovations in Gmail, for instance allows for a different kind of filtering – the priority inbox allows for mail to be delivered to you based on your priorities, and not always the last-in-gets-your-attention approach.
So software design and a carefully crafted user experience can help with the challenges of information and interrupt overload. But human priorities have to take shape as well.
• Turn devices off - leave them behind and engage in other activities without them.
• Create sacrosanct private time for thoughtful work (and a private life!)
Lead change in corporate culture
It’s not enough for an individual knowledge professional or executive to create their own island of focused work time, but has to be supported by a cultural change in an organizational environment. Here’s some ideas that may guide the way.
- Turn meetings into focused collaborative events, sans electronic devices or at least no multi-tasking during meetings, -- keep meetings shorter, more focused, tighter agendas, and only most necessary individuals. Many meetings often include too many people, lack a clear agenda published ahead of time so people can be prepared, and rarely start on time.
Horowitz indicated that the Google culture possesses a strong ‘meeting hygiene’ recognizing that meetings are a huge imposition on people’s time, and therefore needs to be a crisp business practice.
Lead by example - executives and managers exhibit and promote practices
I’ve written elsewhere that senior managers need to lead when it comes to good collaboration practice, but they also need to lead in managing attention fragmentation behavior
- Set an ‘out of office’ agent to your email to a ‘do not disturb' message letting people know that you're working creatively and thoughtfully on major deliverables and you'l respond by later in the day or the next day.
- Mute alert tones from incoming emails, text messages, phone rings and turn over your device so you don’t receive any visual cues either.
- Really go on vacation – don’t engage in corporate email when you’re supposed to be recharging your batteries and taking care of your family or personal relationships. – If it’s really an emergency leave your cell phone number with a trusted colleague to get in touch with you.
Information overload -- it’s not going to go away, and will only get more challenging – but as much as it’s understood at a cultural or personal level, Spira noted that business leaders aren’t really taking in the business costs and factoring it into changing management practice. At a documented $997B cost to the economy in 2010, it might be time.