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Productivity, Split Attention, and How Technology Hurts Output

Productivity didn’t used to be something everyone had to fight so hard for; it was more an expectation than a charitable quality. But when highly mobile, ever-accessible technology spread over the world like an oil spill, productivity took a major hit.

Then there’s the internet: a black hole filled with every distracting delicacy known to modern humanity. Couple that with gadgets we treat like our own children and an all-consuming pressure to stay constantly connected, and we’ve got a huge problem: technology can seriously inhibit productivity and keep us so dedicated to multitasking that we start to fail at even the simplest of undertakings. And since technology’s not going anywhere but forward, what’s a modern worker to do?

Being Alert vs. Getting Alerts

The average person checks their email more than 36 times per hour — not so inconceivable, but every time a notification pops up in the corner of your screen or causes your phone to vibrate, it disrupts your focus. That doesn’t even account for the other random communications a person can get, via social networks or texts, and whether or not you follow the noise to the message, your attention has been usurped. We hesitate to shut off those incessant alerts because we’ve been trained to think that immediacy is more important than efficiency; we’ve also been taught that “staying on top of things” means staying on top of everything at once — a futile practice if there ever was one.

Because our culture is going beyond interconnectivity and into a state of total shared experience, every hour not spent inhaling data is considered a sea of missed encounters and knowledge. It’s a dangerous space to be in, and one where things like concentration and productivity are sacrificed in the name of competitive advantage — both personally and professionally. But is it worth it?

Going Retro: It’s Not Just About the 8-Tracks

When I wake up in the morning, I check my email and social networks immediately. Before I leave the bed. It’s a habit I’ve developed from working with multiple regions on different clocks; until I’ve confirmed that nothing went terribly wrong while I was asleep, I can’t get moving on the rest of my day. I know it seems obsessive, but wondering and waiting is just too disquieting.

From a consumer standpoint, convenience, integration, and mobility are vital, and I can’t conceive of doing my job without all of it. I must have that functionality and access. But something else occurred to me this morning while I sleepily scrolled through my inbox: we’re a civilization drawn to nostalgia. Paired with our passion for advancement, there’s a love for things like old-school record players that sync with the cloud — stuff that appears vintage, but that offers modern features and capabilities. Imagine if we applied this same principle — went retro, so to speak — with the way we work.

We can’t, and shouldn’t, disconnect completely (this guy tried, and it didn’t quite work out the way he planned), but what if we just stripped down to the basics? Got rid of multiple, synced alerts, and set aside an hour in the afternoons to check email and the like? No repeated scrolling to see if someone liked your company update; no strange sense of relief when at least one person shares your presentation. No mild panic when you feel your phone buzz in a meeting, because it could be important, only to sneak a look and have it be a notification that your favorite TV show has returned to Netflix. What’s interesting is that we have the power to alleviate some of this influx; it’s our choice to stay invested in perpetual contact, despite the fact that it’s been scientifically shown to negatively impact sleep, stress levels, and mental health.

I’ve made arguments before that this work/life integration is a testament to our desire to work, not just our need to make money. And while I still think that’s the case, I’m not so sure it’s what’s best.

You Say You Want an…Intervention

In this case, I’m playing devil’s advocate. I’m not personally ready to abandon the way I’ve learned to work; most of the time, I like how I’ve woven my professional responsibilities into my daily life. But for those of you ready to take the plunge (or at least attempt it), here’s what I propose:

  • Don’t touch any of your gadgets or devices before you get out of bed. At least wait until you’re having coffee/ tea/ breakfast.
  • When you finally do sit down with your tablet or what have you — if it’s feasible — catch up on personal stuff first.
  • Identify primary avenues for different notifications, and eliminate as many of the duplicates as you can. For example, you don’t really need Facebook to email you every time someone likes or shares a post. Just go straight to the source.
  • Set aside a specific chunk of time in your day to check and address emails and other communications. Don’t plan for other stuff during that time — no meetings, no having lunch with friends, no wandering over to Huffington Post for a minute. That time is for reading and responding.
  • Stop taking additional gadgets to meetings — choose one and stick with it.
  • When you start a task, dedicate yourself to it. Block out the time on your calendar; put up an out-of-office message if you have to. Force yourself beyond distraction.

This Entrepreneur article has some other great solutions to technology-induced productivity problems, none of which are easy, but all of which might be necessary to preserve productivity. What’s your take? Is productivity suffering at the hands of technology, or is it a matter of personal responsibility? Tell us about it in the comments.

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