Sunday, September 19, 2010

Muli-tasking - Good for Computers, Not so for Humans

I’m at my desk working on some task; maybe it’s a budget spreadsheet, a new Java class, a PowerPoint presentation, or Heaven only knows what.  Architects do a lot of varied tasks. The key point is that I need to focus and get this done.  Today.  No matter what.

Ping - my instant message window pops up; “Hey ya.”  “Hey ya” ?? What is that?  Should I respond? Should I remind myself yet again to sign out of IM before beginning a task.  I wonder if there is a send-an-electric-shock feature I can employ here.

Now let me rant for just a moment.  Most IM solutions allow you to indicate that you are not to be disturbed, and furthermore allow you set set up exclusion lists so that your manager and best-work-buddy can still see you as available.

If you have not set out the Do Not Disturb sign you are OBLIGATED to respond to requests - that’s social etiquette for instant messaging. If your status says you are available - then you are. Imagine walking into a business with an “Open” sign only to learn they don’t really mean it.

On the other side of the chat, that initiator also has a responsibility to never, never, never initiate a chat without expressing what the chat is to be about.  “Hey ya”, “you there?”, “hi”, and all other greetings are actually rude and boorish behavior in the world of instant messaging.  Managers - this applies to you too.

All chats should begin with “Hey ya (or something similar), do you have a moment to discuss {fill in the subject here}.”

/end of rant

OK, back to me at my desk... Ring. Wait for it..., wait for it... Ring #2... now I can see the caller ID.  Drat - I know this person, and should probably take the call.  Why couldn’t it have been a vendor - that’s why we have voice mail and 337.

“Hey, did you get my email?”  What?  Did you actually ask me that?  When was the last time you sent me an email and I didn’t get it? You - “Ahh, let me check.”  “Sure, it’s here.”  Them - “Good, ‘cause it’s important I get a response soon.”  “Sure thing, I’ll stop everything to address your critical email about the meeting TWO WEEKS from now.”


Back to my must-stay-focused on thingy.  Wait, what was that other email with the subject line: “REQUIRED ACTION: ...” all about.

And so it goes, all sanity depriving day long.

If I’m lucky I’ll complete my assigned task, although to be completely fair - it won’t be the result of my best unassailed thinking. It will be the best I could have produced given the conditions under which I work.  But, as it turns out, we have more control over those conditions than we might think.

But first things first. Interruptions matter, they matter in a measurable way, and they negatively impact productivity, reasoning, timeliness, and quality.  

John Medina is a developmental molecular biologist, an affiliate Professor of Bioengineering a the University of Washington School of Medicine and the author of the book, Brain Rules.  He is an expert on how the brain works at the neuro-molecular level.

According to Medina, humans cannot multitask.  When one attempts to multitask, such as responding to an instant message chat, they take 50% longer to complete a task - minus the interruption time. If a task could be done in five minutes, and you are interrupted for two, the original task will now take 7.5, not counting the two minutes of interruption. Total time would be nine and a half minutes (9.5 = 5 + 2.5 + 2).

Furthermore, an interrupted person will create 50% more errors even though they are spending more time.  In other words a five minute task, stretched to 7.5 will have more errors even though one would think that the need for the extra time was because the worker was double checking their output.

Here’s one - merely reaching for an object while driving a car increases your chances of being in an accident by nine times.  Humans ... cannot ... multitask!

Since interruptions can be shown to have a negative, measurable impact on the quality and delivery of our output, we need to control them.  There are a number of strategies for minimizing interruptions.  Most of the following assume you work in a non-customer facing environment - naturally there you must always respond.

  • Block certain periods of the day to deal with the telephone, especially voicemails.
  • Do the same for emails, rather than responding to them all day long.  Do you have a popup or other “You have Mail” indicator?  Lose it.
  • Set your instant message client to “Do Not Disturb” when you need to focus, and feel completely free to delay responding to “Hi”, or chat requests that are not clearly urgent.
  • If you can, remove yourself from your typical work venue.  I have the ability to work from home, and those are by far my most productive days.
Want to multitask?  Grow another brain, ‘cause the one you have can’t do it.  Need to think?  Control your interruptions.

1 comment:

  1. There's a really interesting part of Steve McConnell's Software Project Survival Guide that covers this; developers who have at least one hour of undisturbed quiet time are as much as 10x more productive than developers who aren't provided such. Some of that can be self-determined; you can choose not to answer email.

    But for decent developers, having a quiet office of their own can be shown to pay for itself at times, unless all possible distractions are from team members working together on the same task.

    My work from home days have been *ridiculously* more productive over the last few months, as the seating I have is next to a group that spends most of it's day working on the phones.


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