Interrupted by Interruptions

Last September, we calculated the high cost of interruptions (see also The Cost of Not Paying Attention: How Interruptions Impact Knowledge Worker Productivity).   Specifically, we reckoned that unnecessary interruptions and recovery time cost the U.S. economy $588 billion per annum.  No doubt, interruptions are costly.  They consume ca. 28 percent of the knowledge worker’s day, which translates to 28 billion lost hours per year.

Time magazine picked up on our research this week with an article, Help! I’ve Lost My Focus.  No, it isn’t about photography.  Rather, it is an examination of how the technologies we hold so near and dear to our hearts (and not only to our hearts, the author cites a psychiatrist whose patient asks “whether I thought it was abnormal that her husband brings the BlackBerry to bed and lays it next to them when they make love) may “drive us to distraction.”

Two nights ago Anderson Cooper continued on this theme (citing our now familiar $588 billion figure) and shadowed the proprietor of Just Calm Down, a day spa that specializes in helping its clients relax.  The proprietor, of course, had a calm exterior as she booked appointments, served beverages, prepared payroll, answered phones, and greeted clients, but it was also clear that a day in her own facility might be prescribed.

Time magazine also spoke with Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist who has conjured up a term, attention-deficit trait, to describe attention deficit disorder that supposedly occurs when a knowledge worker becomes overloaded with incoming messages and competing tasks that he is unable to prioritize.

Welcome to the knowledge economy.

In today’s economy, we have largely replaced the production of goods with the production of knowledge.  That requires a different way of approaching work.  If someone cannot prioritize and therefore cannot function in the knowledge economy, the answer is very simple.  They need to learn how to.  They don’t need a psychiatrist to tell them, as Hallowell does, that they have feelings of “guilt and inadequacy” as a result.

In my opinion, an inability to multitask will be less and less of a problem.  Members of the Net Generation, or NetGen’ers, those who grew up with pervasive connectivity and cannot imagine a world that did not include e-mail, IM, and text messaging, will make up a good part of the knowledge worker population in the next few decades.  They are wired for this environment.  If you ask one of them whether it is unproductive to write a report while at the same time participating in a conference call and five IM sessions, the response will be telling: how else does one work?

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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