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Constant interruption leading to lower IQs

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The pandemic has brought on new debates about the nature of work. We’ve seen fads over the decades – the predicted four-day workweek, sabbaticals, job sharing, full-time part-time, hotelling, working from home, and now hybrid work. All are euphemisms for not working 37.5 hours per week in an office.

Seamless work really means you’re always working – in the car, on weekends, at night, at the kids’ birthday parties, and so on. Smartphones and notebook computers seem to liberate us to be able to be at the birthday party and home for family dinners, so long as we check in before checking out for the night. The problem is that we end up checking in all the time.

Let’s do a reality check on what really, really doesn’t work. How long do we focus on tasks with modern devices beckoning? “[O[n average, an adult working in an office stays on one task” for just three minutes. High school students “switch tasks once every 65 seconds.” The median time they focus “on any one thing is just 19 seconds.”

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This shocking data is courtesy of author Johann Hari in his book Stolen Focus. He also notes that if you’re interrupted in your work, it takes an inordinate amount of time to get back on track. Most workers never get an hour of uninterrupted work under their belts.

Long before smartphones, I had some experience with multitasking. I worked in a radio and TV newsroom. While I was typing the news, I got up and checked the wire service regularly and occasionally listened to the police scanner or the other radio station in town. I’d make occasional calls to check with police and other sources. I read one or two newscasts per hour. There is an illusion that you’re really, really busy and productive in this hyper environment. The most productive writers, though, just quietly started another story and banged away.

We’re in a similar boat today with people conducting meetings while looking at smartphones and typing on a notebook. I’ve even seen an executive begin a sentence with the person standing next to him and finish it with the person who just called his phone. Each person gets half a sentence.

Johann Hari says we typically “touch our phones 2.617 times…” a day. We are paying the price in degraded focus (the switch cost) and even lowering our IQs. The average CEO “gets just 28 uninterrupted minutes a day.”

We can’t afford this productivity loss and illusion of work. We need to shut off devices, finish an email or report before moving on, focus on the caller on the phone and not the devices on our desks, and cut down on phone time in the car and on the street. We can unsubscribe from mass emails, set “office hours” for checking emails and use the “ten-minute rule” – if you want to check your phone, wait ten minutes.

Seeming to do less is actually doing more.

Allan Bonner was the first North American to be awarded an MSc in Risk, Crisis, and Disaster Management. He trained in England and has worked in the field on five continents for 35 years. His latest book is Emergency! – a monograph with 13 other authors on the many crises that occurred during the pandemic.

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