Office technology: Productivity boost or time sink?

Gadget-enabled multitasking is so addictive, it might actually be damaging the economy.

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Crenshaw agrees with the Basex estimate that 28% of an office worker's time is lost to interruptions and recovery time; his own findings range from 25% to 30%. "That amounts to an entire work week every single month," notes Crenshaw, who says he was moved to write the book The Myth of Multitasking: How 'Doing It All' Gets Nothing Done after seeing clients who were in a permanent state of multitasking.

"The majority of people are caught in a constant round of task-switching, going from site to site, e-mail to e-mail, conversation to conversation. At the end of the day they'll say they were really busy all day long, but if you ask what they did they can't think of anything. That feeling comes from being constantly busy but not accomplishing anything."

Edward Hallowell, a physician in Arlington, Mass., also wrote a book, CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap, based on what he'd seen in his practice. "The modern search for stimulation invites multitasking, but the brain can't do it; we don't have the neurological equipment," he says.

"The use of an interactive screen, where you can go back and forth, plugs into the same dopamine circuits that drive most addictions," Hallowell says. "I call the result 'screen sucking' -- you go online to check e-mail and you're still there two hours later. You get a little squirt of dopamine and you want more, like a rat pushing a lever over and over."

He recalls one client who reported she was trying to do three things at a time -- talking on the phone, conversing face to face and answering e-mail -- and not accomplishing any of the three tasks in the course of an hour. Handling the tasks separately, she finished all three in 13 minutes.

Multitasking takes a toll not just on productivity but also on interoffice relationships. "People will interrupt [face-to-face] conversations to answer the phone. It hurts employee morale and customer service," Crenshaw says.

Faceless face time

Perhaps as a result, "people constantly do work while talking, talking to people in their presence while also talking on the phone, or working on the computer while talking on the phone," Crenshaw says.

"I have come across many employees who feel neglected by their managers, since the boss won't fully pay attention to them, or when they do get to talk to the boss they cling as tightly as they can since they don't know when the next opportunity will come."

While Hallowell acknowledges that multitasking is a great way to make boring tasks like data entry seem more tolerable, he counsels employees to reserve time in their business day to interact with colleagues face to face and to map out uninterrupted time for concentrating on important tasks one at a time.

"If you make better use of your attention, it is a gift you give yourself," he says. You'll get your work done, and as a bonus, he says, "you will feel more energetic, refreshed and alert."

Fewer tools, more rules

Most experts agree it's not the electronics, but the ways people use them, that cause productivity problems.

"A lot of corporations give people tools and don't teach them how to use them," says PEP's Sherman. "If they are demanding more work, they are obligated to show [employees] how to use their tools more effectively," he continues. "People are stealing time from themselves by not using tools that are available."

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