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More Trouble For Search…

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011 by Cody Burke

Wrong haystack?

Searching for content on the Internet is hard enough, but according to researchers at the ICSI (International Computer Science Institute) at Berkeley, there are complications beyond out of date information and an overwhelming number of search results, things we today consider to be typical manifestation of search failures.

According to research papers published separately by the ICSI and Usenix, the Advanced Computing Systems Association, search queries made with major search Web engines that include Bing, Yahoo, and Google are sometimes rerouted through third party proxies controlled by Paxfire, an advertising company whose involvement was uncovered by the ICSI researchers via analysis of patent applications. The rerouting occurred for users of 10 U.S. ISPs, and has now been halted according to the New Scientist, which broke the story last week. Paxfire and RCN (one of the ISPs) are now the subject of a class action lawsuit alleging violation of privacy safeguards covered in the 1968 Wiretap Act.

The practice appears to have been intended to monetize search results for the ISPs by directing traffic to specific sites. The ICSI researchers have identified 165 search terms that include “apple”, “dell”, “bloomingdales”, and “safeway” that, when entered into a search tool, would be passed to an online marketing company by the ISP, which would redirect the user straight to the respective company’s online retail site. The search was essentially hijacked and never actually went through the search engine.

The online marketing companies are paid by site owners (in this case the retail companies, although there is no indication the companies had knowledge of the redirecting of searches to their sites) to supply traffic to Web sites. In exchange for leading search users directly to the retail sites the online marketing companies then pass on a cut of their fee to the ISPs and Paxfire. The process bypasses the search engine entirely because use of the targeted terms result in the user being taken straight to the retailer’s site, instead of a search results page.

The ISPs involved in the practice stopped redirecting Google traffic after the company complained to them last year, but up until this week were still carrying out the practice for searches made with Bing and Yahoo.

Peter Eckersley of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet advocacy group, told the New Scientist that “This interception and alteration of search traffic is not just your average privacy problem…This is deep violation of users’ trust and expectations about how the internet is supposed to function.”

I would go even further than that. It is indeed a massive privacy and trust violation, but for the knowledge worker, this is yet one more wake up call that search continues to be a flawed tool that one must use with a critical eye. The practice of search redirection demonstrates (as if there was much doubt) that search is not a neutral and agnostic process; there are competing interests and financial motivations behind every Internet search and the knowledge worker must be aware of these biases. It is not enough to simply worry about how authoritative a piece of content is, it is imperative to be critical about the entire process, starting with the selection of a search tool, to the entering of a search query, and to the examination and analysis of the results.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex. He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

Can You Hear Me Now Part II

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011 by Cody Burke

"Are you still there? Oh well, lets wait while he dials back in...."

A few weeks ago, we ran a piece entitled Can You Hear Me Now, looking at the impact of audio problems on knowledge worker productivity.  This is Part II of that story.

Audio problems impact knowledge workers to some extent nearly every day, on nearly every phone interaction.  Typically, this results in two Information Overload-related challenges: interruptions and missed information.

In practice, interruptions in the course of a phone or conference call can take various forms, ranging from dropped calls to participants dialing in late on a conference bridge and disrupting an ongoing exchange.  Anything that causes participants to have to ask for a point to be repeated – or a technical issue to be resolved – constitutes an interruption, and each carries with it a time penalty.  This includes seemingly minor disruptions such as echo, delay, GSM static, and overtalk, because the flow of information stops when someone asks the speaker to repeat himself.  In many of these situations, callers who are experiencing problems will leave a call, switch phones, and dial in again, causing even further delays.  If the caller with the problem was the one speaking, all other callers have to wait until he or she rejoins.

Since interruptions occur numerous times each day, even when they are short (and not all are), the lost time begins to add up and becomes a significant drain on the knowledge worker’s productivity.  The impact of an interruption extends past the initial event; interviews, surveys, and first-hand observation of hundreds of knowledge workers reveal the existence of “recovery time”. Recovery time refers to the amount of time it takes a worker to get back to where he was in his work or thought process prior to an interruption.  This typically takes somewhere between 10 to 20 times the duration of the interruption itself.

On a call, the same principle holds true, except it may be amplified geometrically by the number of people impacted.  In a call, if one knowledge worker is having audio issues such as echo or delay, all participants are subjected to a time penalty.  Likely there will be a minute or two of waiting for the caller to try fix the issue, followed by some small talk, and then some brief complaining about the conferencing system.  All in all, each caller may have lost as much as five minutes, which when scaled across a conference call with many participants, can translate into significant financial losses.

A lack of clarity on a call can result in not only a time penalty as knowledge workers ask for a speaker to repeat key points, but also in missed or incorrect information.  This introduces errors into work and can lead to costly problems down the line that range from time-consuming corrections in the best case to sub-standard work product being produced in the worst case.

In a voice-only communication environment, missed or incorrect information may be due to a number of factors that range from poor quality connections that garble voices, the use of mobile phones, background noise, ambient noise picked up by a speakerphone, audio clipping due to over talking, volume inconsistency, or even simply neglecting to use the mute button when appropriate.  Some of these issues are behavioral in nature, but many are not.

The time and productivity penalty for missed information is huge.  A knowledge worker may have to go back and listen to the recording of a call (assuming it was even recorded) a second time to catch or clarify valuable information, or even engage in lengthy follow up e-mail exchanges with other participants to confirm key data.  More likely, the knowledge worker will not even be aware that information was missed, and will move forward with an action item using incomplete information.  As the project moves forward, correcting an initial error will increasingly become more costly and disruptive.

Audio quality issues can have a significant impact on knowledge worker productivity; the importance of clear communications is often overlooked, but improving audio quality will not only have a dramatic impact on productivity but may have a surprising impact on an organization’s bottom line as well.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.  He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

Will Banning PowerPoint Save the Knowledge Worker?

Thursday, July 14th, 2011 by Cody Burke

Although the impact of a tool is in large part determined by the way it is used, there are certain tools that by their very design can have a negative impact on productivity.

PowerPoint, a familiar tool to all knowledge workers, has attracted a large number of detractors over the years. As the go-to business presentation tool, it is ubiquitous and almost a requirement in formal business interactions to present a slide deck with the requisite company information, colorful collection of company logos slides, series of bullet points, a few quotes, some charts, and although this thankfully seems to have fallen out of fashion, perhaps a clever animation of some sort.

Unfortunately, the metaphor of a PowerPoint presentation, that is, a linear progression of high-level talking points, is not necessarily well suited for knowledge work. Over a year ago, in April of 2010, The New York Times spoke with several military officers who blamed the tool for oversimplifying issues and fostering the illusion that people understand complex problems when they actually don’t. General James N. Mattis, U.S. Marine Corps, did not mince words when he said that “PowerPoint makes us stupid”.

The gist of the comments by military commanders in the New York Times piece was that creating the massive amount of PowerPoint slides that have become overly time-intensive and that “the program stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision making.”

Taking the criticism of PowerPoint one step further, the Anti-PowerPoint Party (APPP) in Switzerland has recently called for a referendum on banning the use of the tool for presentations, instead advocating the use of the time-tested paper flip chart. The group claims that the use of PowerPoint costs the Swiss economy 1.2 billion Swiss Francs, or $2.5 billion. The estimated cost is based on a series of assumptions that range from the somewhat logical, that 11% of the country’s 4.1 million employees participate in PowerPoint presentations twice a week on average, and that the average number of participants is 10, to the slightly less-logical, that 85% of participants find the presentations “are killing motivation.” (To the APPP’s credit, they are very clear that they are operating on assumptions, not hard data.)

Despite the fuzzy estimation of the APPP’s economic impact, it is refreshing to see an attempt to critically examine the financial impact of a specific tool. Through extensive surveying, our research at Basex has revealed the overall cost of Information Overload to the U.S. economy in 2010 to be nearly $1 trillion. We have not looked yet at the specific cost of individual tools in that figure because we believe that the problem is a confluence of multiple factors, although isolating the cost at the tool level is an intriguing avenue of research.

While the APPP’s approach is a bit extreme, we do believe that the actions of individual knowledge workers can make a huge impact in reducing Information Overload. An outright ban on PowerPoint is draconian and an overreaction to say the least. However, if the proposed referendum spurs discussion and a reevaluation of the use of that tool, then there may be a positive impact on reducing Information Overload and increasing knowledge worker productivity. We all no doubt would be happy to sit through even one fewer PowerPoint presentation.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

Is Infoveganism the Next Fad Diet?

Thursday, July 7th, 2011 by Cody Burke

Recently in this space, I discussed the ideas of Rolf Dobelli, a Swiss novelist whose white paper “Avoid News: Towards a Healthy News Diet” struck a real chord with us at Basex. We found his ideas refreshing, logical, and compelling, and have made some efforts to apply his thinking to our work.

Dobelli’s thesis, simply put, is that information obtained via the news is extremely damaging to us on multiple levels, ranging from our ability to form complex thoughts to our physical health. He argues that the news systematically misleads us and introduces numerous cognitive errors to our thinking, and advocates complete disengagement from all news sources. Obviously, this fits nicely with many of the things we at Basex have been saying about the problem of Information Overload and its negative impact on knowledge worker productivity and effectiveness.

His perspective, although extreme, is not in isolation. A new term has popped up that bears some examining, Infovegan. Coined by Clay Johnson, a technology thinker and open source information advocate, the term describes anyone who “makes a deliberate decision to remove a vast amount of news and information sources from one’s diet, sticking to a well constrained allowable set of consumption inputs for their own health’s sake.”

Johnson centers his analysis of Information Overload on the perspective that the problem is not the amount of information, but the overconsumption of that information. He points out that most people do not make conscious choices about what information to consume or not to consume, but when they do, they are subtracting information sources from their information diet in much the same way vegans cut animal products from their food diet.

The term Infovegan is not perfect in its application, and there are some actual vegans who object to the appropriation. Nonetheless, framing Information Overload as a consumption and health issue by using familiar terminology (the term vegan) may be helpful for many people, and serve as a useful analytical framework to examine the harm that Information Overload is doing, as well as ways to deal with the problem.

When we are asked, as we often are, to give people tips and rules for reducing Information Overload, we stress that individual actions make a huge impact. Vegans (the food kind) would no doubt agree and site numerous health and ethical benefits of choosing their diet and lifestyle.

Now, to be clear, we are not endorsing any particular diet when it comes to food (I’m a rib-loving BBQ enthusiast myself); however, when it comes to information, the Infovegan approach makes far too much sense to dismiss.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

Information Overload: 5 Authors’ Points-of-View

Thursday, June 30th, 2011 by Cody Burke

What channel is it on?

On Monday, the Information Overload Research Group (IORG) hosted a virtual literary salon on the topic of Information Overload entitled “Five Authors, Five Books, A Dialogue on Information Overload.” The event featured authors who have written recent books related to the subject of Information Overload. They were asked to discuss why they wrote their books, and what issues they feel are most relevant today.

Dave Crenshaw, author of The Myth of Multitasking, spoke about the problem of switch tasking, which describes what happens when people switch back and forth rapidly between tasks, lowering their productivity. Crenshaw suggested several strategies for dealing with Information Overload, including setting definite start and end times for work in order to increase the productivity of work-designated times, learning to say no to new projects, and avoiding the “Double Q” (just one quick question). The Double Q is particularly vexing as those kinds of questions cause multiple small interruptions. The best way to deal with the problem is to group all the little question into a single one-to-one meeting, avoiding the steady stream of small interruptions.

Daniel Forrester, author of Consider, mentioned that he was motivated to write his book in part by reading about how Bill Gates would schedule “Think Weeks” for thought and reflection twice a year. At the time, he was also questioning how multitasking was affecting his own life and reading research that proved that multitasking was largely impossible. Forrester went on to outline how he began looking at information-related military issues in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the leadership style of different leaders such as David Petraeus and Colin Powell. He noted that we are still not spending enough time thinking and reflecting, saying that he believes the most successful companies and individuals will be those who engage in what he called “group reflection” as opposed to group think.

Next, Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted, outlined her argument that we risk heading into a Dark Age due to our lack of deep thinking, excessive work/life balance degradation, and a drop in listening skills. She outlined the three types of attention, namely focus, awareness, and executive attention, and how people can be trained either to be distracted or to be focused. She finished with a call to action to question our assumptions and values about how we think about attention, with a shift back to emphasizing focused thought and setting up our environments to support deep thought and reflection.

William Powers, author of Hamlet’s BlackBerry, spoke about his realization of how the medium through which we consume information, namely screens, shapes our lives. Prior to writing his book, he had begun to notice that it became difficult to get through more than a few pages in a good novel before feeling the urge to look at a screen. Powers discussed how he went back to historical moments when humans faced technological challenges, and found practical examples of people dealing with information consumption and striking healthy balances in their lives. He concluded that we all have to realize the benefits of finding a healthy balance and setting limits on information consumption.

To finish the discussion, Jonathan Spira, author of Overload!, discussed the evolution of his research into Information Overload over the last 20 years. His starting point emerged from his observations of the problems that occur when knowledge workers share information and collaborate, almost all of them Information Overload-related. This led him on a 20-year journey to address these issues and help people deal with the problem. He outlined the phenomenon of recovery time, which is the time it takes a knowledge worker to return to the task at hand after an interruption (five to ten times the length of the interruption itself). Jonathan also shared some statistics on how widespread the problem is: for example, 94% of knowledge workers have felt overwhelmedto the point of incapacitation by the amount of information they encounter on a daily basis. His parting thought was that we can all do something about Information Overload by taking personal responsibility for the problem and taking action in whatever ways we can, such as by sending clearer e-mail, or by valuing our colleagues’ time as if it were our own.

Jonathan, who was also serving as moderator, ended the event three minutes early and told attendees that he was hereby returning three additional minutes to them for the purpose of thought and reflection.

The entire event, including a question and answer session, can be heard in its entirety here.

This Analyst Opinion is also available online at

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex. He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

Can You Hear Me Now?

Thursday, June 9th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

Much of the time, we look at distractions and interruptions in the workplace and think “e-mail” or “instant message.”

What did you say again?

However, an often overlooked source of distractions is the issue of audio quality during phone conversations. Some level of interference is usually a given on a phone call, but these small interruptions and distractions can, and do, add up.

On a one-on-one phone call, a bad connection can often be fixed in a time-tested manner, (hang up and try again, hoping for a better connection), however, those suffering on a conference call can’t solve the problem as easily.

On a group call, a variety of problems may present themselves. Many stem from poor caller etiquette. Examples include not using mute when coughing or using a speakerphone with high background noise. Other problems depend on the type of phone being used. Mobile phones are frequently (but not always) less clear compared to a landline phone, and everyone is familiar with the robot-like voice distortion that occurs when a VoIP connection slows down.

While knowledge workers are becoming increasingly reliant on advanced communications tools, verbal communication remains the motor of the knowledge economy in many respects.

In today’s global economy, given the vast distances that separate many knowledge workers, such verbal interactions more often than not occur via the telephone.

The upside of this is that knowledge workers from all over the world can join in a conference call without having to travel from their respective offices. The downside however, is that the subtle non-verbal cues that we rely on for effective communication are lost. Physical gestures, facial expressions, eye movements, and many other non-verbal actions reinforce, emphasize, and even contradict what a speaker is saying. These vital clues that set context and provide a wealth of supplemental information to the listener are missing from a telephone conversation.

Because of the loss of these important aspects of the verbal interaction, the remaining information, conveyed by voice, is all the more critical. As a result, any disruption to the audio quality of a call can have a significant impact on the participants. Missed information can lead to costly errors, muddled responses to questions require time-consuming repetition and clarification, and a static-filled connection results in frustration and stress for call participants as they strain to follow the conversation.

What are your experiences and thoughts on this issue? Post your comments and thoughts here.

–Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization. Cody Burke, a senior analyst at Basex , contributed to this article.

Your Information Overload Stories

Thursday, May 19th, 2011 by Cody Burke

In conjunction with the publication of Overload!, Jonathan Spira’s new book on Information Overload, he will also be launching Overload Stories.  By providing a space to share stories, experiences, and coping strategies that knowledge workers have developed, it will expand upon and continue the mission of raising awareness of Information Overload.

Even though the site is currently in beta, we have already received many insightful and illuminating stories, and thought we would share two excerpts with our readers as a preview of what Overload Stories will offer.  The full stories can be viewed at www.overloadstories.com.

From Sue Gladen, Writer

“I’m a writer, and a distracted one, so the internet is a problem.  Especially because the internet lives right in the same box that I rely on to do my writing.  It is a feng shui problem.  There is no way to separate the tool that I use to write from the tool that I use to access the world wide web, and the lack of division in the tool muddies the task at hand.

The closest physical example I can think of is the similarity of garden tools to kitchen tools.  You wouldn’t store a garden spade in your silverware drawer, would you?  They are essentially the same materials, with similar shapes and functions.  Still, the mere proximity of the garden tool that has been out there digging through the dirt would make the kitchen utensils seem unfit for cooking.  They don’t go in the same drawer.  In most houses, they don’t even go in the same room!”

From Stephen Lefebvre, a senior manager at an energy company

“It was not until I turned everything back on that I realized how big a problem I had.  A few years ago I found myself struggling to make time to prepare some end-of-year performance reviews.  As the deadline loomed I did something drastic, something I had not done in some time, I shut it all off; the Blackberry, the e-mail client, the news feeds, the instant messenger, I put the phone on do-not-disturb, I closed my office door.

The first half hour was agony.  Although I refused to let myself start MSOutlook, the urge to clear a few e-mails was surprisingly strong.  I thrashed to stay focused on the task at hand, and found myself agitated at being disconnected.  Then something magic happened – I looked up and 2 hours had sped by.  I had given my full attention to one important assignment.  That was the day I realized the toll that information overload had taken on my performance.  That was the day that I started to view information-overload as an addiction.”

If you would like to contribute your story in advance of the book’s publication and launch of the Web site, please e-mail it to us at stories@basex.com.  We are looking for two- to three-paragraph stories about how Information Overload has impacted you and/or your organization and what you are doing to combat the problem.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

Taming Information Overload by Opting Out

Thursday, May 5th, 2011 by Cody Burke

In the last 25 years, thanks to technological developments and the introduction of the 24-hour news cycle, the level of news that we are exposed to has risen dramatically.

Where exactly is the "opt out" button?

Today we have a plethora of options for keeping up with current events, with even old standards such as television, radio, and newspapers updated for the digital age and turned into nearly always accessible Internet offerings.  Add to this mix 24-hour cable news, citizen blogger/journalists, Twitter, news aggregation Web sites, etc., and the sheer quantity of available news for consumption quickly becomes overwhelming.  All of this information adds to the tidal wave of Information Overload, which lowers comprehension levels and impacts our ability to be productive.

The prevailing theory, as told to us by news organizations among others, is that the more we know, the better informed we are, and the better our decision making will be.

Rolf Dobelli, a Swiss novelist, has a dramatically different view on this.  He believes that news is extremely damaging to us on multiple levels, ranging from our ability to understand complex arguments all the way through to our health.  In a white paper entitled Avoid News: Towards a Healthy News Diet, Dobelli lays out his case for giving up on the news completely as a way to tame Information Overload.  His method may seem extreme to some, but his argument is persuasive, if maybe a bit naïve.

The premise of his argument is that news systematically misleads us, limits true understanding, is largely irrelevant, increases cognitive errors, is manipulative, and is often simply incorrect.  The reasons for this all stem from the very nature of news as ephemeral and inherently flawed as a reliable information source.  The business model of news favors the new over the relevant because that is what sells papers and attracts listeners and viewers, not because it is the best way to deliver detailed analysis and deep, thought out arguments.

Dobelli also points out that news is costly, both in terms of time spent consuming and in the recovery time it takes to refocus after being exposed to news.  Further, it is likely that an individual will devote at lease some time, at a later date, thinking about some news item that is in all likelihood extremely irrelevant, breaking concentration once again.

Much in the same way that we now know that multitasking is damaging, Dobelli notes that “[T]he more news we consume, the more we exercise the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading deeply and thinking with profound focus.”

Dobelli builds a strong argument for giving up on news completely.  He advocates relying on truly important news being filtered through friends and family whose judgment you trust and who know your interests.  The other way that he recommends getting information is reading in-depth articles in respected journals, and reading books.  By doing this, it is possible to avoid the many errors that are inadvertently inserted in a news story as it is breaking, and give the author or investigate journalist time to do proper research and place the news into context, where it is infinitely more valuable to building a real understanding of events.

As convincing as as Dobelli’s argument may be, the question remains: how realistic is it to follow this cold turkey approach?  In many industries one is expected to be on top of the news and act accordingly, despite the obvious downside to acting without proper reflection and in-depth research.  So, an open question to readers, would you be able to cut out the news and do your job?  Or is it an unrealistic goal, despite the benefits such an information diet might bring you?

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

Is The Future of Work Less E-mail?

Thursday, April 21st, 2011 by Cody Burke

This week, Skype and GigaomPro released The Future of Workplaces, a study on the changing nature of work.  The report focused on the increase in remote working and the way that changes in technology use are impacting that trend.  In conjunction with the report, Skype launched a series of video interviews on the subject of remote work and the changing workplace; one of the featured speakers is Basex’ chief analyst Jonathan Spira.

The overall conclusions of the study that remote work is on the upswing, due to the capabilities of new technologies that have begun to enter into the business world from the consumer market, should come as no surprise to most knowledge workers.  Effective collaboration technologies have been sorely needed to address the complications of working across disparate time zones, between ad hoc teams, and across large enterprise environments that may not have effective knowledge sharing and collaboration tools in place.  The rise of effective desktop video tools, VoIP calling, and increasingly powerful mobile devices supports a move away from what Spira calls the “Dilbertian” work environments.

The study also contains some interesting statistics about Information Overload and communications tools, which bear some discussion in light of our own ongoing research in these areas.

According to the report, 42% of those surveyed felt that the workplace is increasingly suffering from Information Overload.  This correlates with our own survey data, which shows that over 50% of knowledge workers feel that the amount of information they are presented with on a daily basis is detrimental to getting their work done, and that 94% at some point have felt overwhelmed by information to the point of incapacitation.

Interestingly, the Gigaom study also stated that 35% of respondents felt that e-mail was the number one contributor to Information Overload.  E-mail is clearly a large contributor, but when conceptualizing Information Overload, one must also consider non-technology sources, such as interruptions, meetings, and the impact of multitasking.

The narrative of late in the media is that e-mail is in decline, and data shows that although it is still a major business communications tool, there are signs that its prominence is slipping.  The Future of Workplaces study states that e-mail (as well as the office landline) is likely to decline in use.  Only 35% said that they would use e-mail more in the future than they do presently, compared to 40% who said they now use e-mail more compared to last year.  Although the concept of expected use is problematic and should be taken with a grain of salt, this shows a decline in the expected use of the tool; conversely, almost all the other technologies studied showed higher rates of expected future use than present use.  Expected use of video conferencing and calling, VoIP calling, instant messaging, texting, and mobile phones all showed increases.  Interestingly, the numbers for social networking tools were essentially level; 29% said they were likely to use the tools more in the future, and 30% said they were using more compared to last year.

This may be a good sign, as a reduction in e-mail portends positive benefits for the knowledge worker.  However, caution is warranted here, because the likelihood is that knowledge workers will simply transfer something that was sent via e-mail to another communications medium.  In some cases, such as an IM conversation about what to have for lunch, that is a good thing.  In other cases, such as a poorly filtered activity feed full of irrelevant information that must be sorted through, more Information Overload may actually be introduced through a move away from e-mail.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

The Impact of Interruptions and Multitasking On Knowledge Worker Efficiency and Effectiveness

Thursday, April 14th, 2011 by Cody Burke

So this is going to get worse as I get older?

Interruptions and multitasking are two afflictions that take a tremendous toll on our ability to focus, complete tasks, and be productive.  Our own research on interruptions shows that the recovery time, that is, the time it takes an individual to return to a task after being interrupted, can be as much as 10 to 20 times the length of the original interruption.  This means a 30 second interruption can result in an average of five minutes of recovery time, and that is optimistically assuming that one returns to the original task and does not abandon it.

It’s already been established that multitasking is not really possible for the human brain to engage in with any efficiency; instead, it is really just a series of interruptions, or task switches.  Multitasking results in lowered efficiency in all of the tasks being performed: there is no substitute for focused thinking on a single task.

New research from the University of California, San Francisco, that was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that the impact of multitasking and interruptions on older people is even more pronounced.  The study took 20 young adults with an average age of 25, and 20 older adults, with an average age of 69, and showed both groups a landscape picture.  They were told to keep the picture in their mind, and were then shown an image of a face and were asked several questions about it.  Then the subjects were shown another landscape picture, and asked to determine if it matched the first picture they were shown.

While the subjects were being shown the images, their brains were being scanned using an fMRI machine to show brain activity.  Both groups were able to switch from the landscape picture to the face image with the same proficiency, however, the brain scans showed that the elderly subjects took longer to switch from thinking about the image of the face back to the landscape portraits.  (The younger subjects were negatively impacted as well, but not as severely as the older subjects.)

Dubbed an “interruption recovery failure” by the researchers, the findings suggest that, as we age, our ability to recover from interruptions is reduced.  Another (albeit unlikely) interpretation of the findings is that there are also cultural factors at work, such as the younger test group’s relatively higher exposure to high amounts of distraction and interruptions as they grow up.

A critical outcome from the study was that the initial hypothesis, that older people experienced more detrimental effects from interruptions because they fixated on the new interruption more than younger people, was false.  In fact, the degree to which the subjects switched focus to the interruption was the same regardless of age; it is the “interruption recovery failure,” or what we call recovery time, that set the groups apart.

For the knowledge worker, young or old, the study demonstrates not only the existence of the recovery time phenomenon but also that it may increase in severity with age.  We don’t yet fully understand the impact that excessive multitasking and interruptions have on the brain as it develops and ages, but we do know now that there is a very real impact on brain activity, and we should redouble our efforts to reduce both the interruptions we are subjected to, as well as those we inflict on others.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.


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