ONE GREAT IDEA that I took away from Nexus 2007 is what Nathan Torkington (O’Reilly) calls Continous Partial Attention. Not that the phenomenon is new, but because it describes succinctly what I’ve been (and still am) experiencing. Finally, I can name it.
This is a new design challenge in this age of information anxiety and abundance of meaning. More and more people, myself included, are doing many things at the same time. However, decades of research (and common sense) have indicated that the quality of one’s output and depth of thought deteriorate as one attends to ever more tasks. For example:
- “We are under the impression that we have this brain that can do more than it often can,” says René Marois, neuroscientist and director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt University, quoted in a recent NYTimes piece about how multi-taskers max out their brains, creating neural network bottlenecks and causing confusion and mistakes (thanks, Susan Mernit).
- When people try to perform two or more related tasks either at the same time or alternating rapidly between them, errors go way up, and it takes far longer–often double the time or more–to get the jobs done than if they were done sequentially, says David E. Meyer, director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan: “The toll in terms of slowdown is extremely large–amazingly so.” (thanks, DeedsDoing 2006)
- “Kids that are instant messaging while doing homework, playing games online and watching TV, I predict, aren’t going to do well in the long run,” says Jordan Grafman, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, quoted in a CNN report last year.
IN MY EXPERIENCE FOR EXAMPLE: During Nexus 2007 last Saturday, I found myself switching among three screens on my laptop most of the time. We were using Twitter.com for message sending, Campfirenow for chatting, and Nexus Live/Interactive to view Twitter messages from everyone. I could barely pay attention to the speakers/panel on the stage. Probably listened to only half the words. One possible way to reduce distraction could be better to replace Campfirenow with a shoutbox hooked onto Twitter via its API, the way Uzyn managed to hook Ping.sg shouts into pingsg_shouts on Twitter. Open Tweetbar on the sidebar and everyone would have two less screens to distract their attention — in other words, Let everyone look at just ONE screen.
Recently, Bjorn Lee twittered: “i have ADD, maybe i shld enrol in that china camp where they reform internet addicts.. oops, thats called NS in spore.” (ADD stands for Attention Deficit Disorder here, I think.)
“Continous Partial Attention (CPA) is different than multi-tasking, where the motivation is productivity: giving equal attention to many activities. CPA’s motivation is being a live node on the network, gaining meaning from the network, being ready for new opportunities at any moment…”
“But this always on, anytime, anywhere, anyplace era has has created an artificial sense of constant crisis. The adrenalized fight or flight mechanism kicks in. It’s great when we’re being chased by tigers. How many of those 500 emails a day is a tiger? Or are they mostly mice? Is everything really such an emergency? Our way of using the current set of technologies would have us believe it is.”
And learn from Jakob Nielsen (thanks, Beth):
- Don’t check your email all the time. Set aside special breaks between bigger projects to handle email. Don’t let email interrupt your projects, and don’t let the computer dictate your priorities.
- Don’t use “reply to all” when responding to email. Abide by the good old “need to know” principle… send follow-up messages only to those people who will actually benefit from the reply.
- Write informative subject lines for your email messages. Assume that the recipient is too busy to open messages with lame titles like “hi.”
- Create a special email address for personal messages and newsletters. Only check this account once per day.
- Write short.
- Avoid IM (instant messaging) unless real-time interaction will truly add value to the communication. A one-minute interruption of your colleagues will cost them ten minutes of productivity as they reestablish their mental context and get back into “flow.” Only the most important messages are worth 1,000 percent in overhead costs.
- Answer common customer questions on your website using clear and concise language. This will save your customers a lot of time — thus making you popular — and will keep them from pestering you with time-consuming phone calls and emails.
- User test your intranet. Clean it up so that employees can find stuff faster, and make the intranet homepage their entry point for keeping up on company news and events.
- Don’t circulate internal email to all employees; instead put the information on the intranet where people can find it when they need it. (This obviously assumes that you’ve fixed the intranet’s usability.)
- Establish a company culture in which it’s okay not to respond to email immediately. This frees employees from the pressure of incessantly checking email and lets them get more work done.
Finally, run 5 miles or do a spin class like Beth does. She explained:
“For some reason, vigorous cardio exercise helps clear out the information anxiety Maybe it is the just the stepping away from the reflected light dancing across my eyes coming from the monitor.”
- Nielsen’s Best Practices of Top Intranets
- Insight#5: More Good Ways to Use Twitter
- If you are 12-17 years old…
- A Video Reply to Geek Goddess’ Lament
- 13 reasons your Facebook account will be disabled
- Permission Marketing – revisited
- Can OLPC eliminate poverty?