Driven to distraction by technology?

Another link that I’ve had floating around for a while, meaning to post:

“The typical office worker is interrupted every three minutes by a phone call, e-mail, instant message or other distraction. The problem is that it takes about eight uninterrupted minutes for our brains to get into a really creative state.”

It’s good to see articles delving into this problem. With so many communication channels available, it is becoming harder and harder to disconnect from the rest of the world and make oneself unavailable. This holds particularly true in computing because you work at the device that is most likely to distract you. When working at a computer you have at least e-mail, IRC and instant messaging to distract you and plenty more scope for procrastination on the web. But even if you are earnestly working on a problem, doing your best to concentrate and have shut down your e-mail client and messaging programs, there are still the interruptions over which you have no control.

When trying to figure out a knotty problem, whether it’s programming, working out why a system is misbehaving or tracking down the cause of a problem, uninterrupted thought is essential. Lots of programmers talk about having to get into “the zone” in order to program quickly and produce good code. Background chatter and the telephone going off all distract me from work at times. After an interruption you can spend several minutes getting back to where you were with the problem. You’re much more likely to miss some element of the problem as well, when you’re being interrupted. Also, the attention you give to the interruption is less than 100%, because at least part of your mind will still be on the problem in hand. Multiple interruptions over a short period of time compound the problems.

So everything suffers – the speed with which you solve the problem you’re working on, the quality of the solution and the attention you give those who interrupt you. In addition to which your own stress levels and mental demands increase as you try and do everything at once. Hopefully more can be done to improve this situation for all.

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