Attention, what attention?

A friend pointed to this brief article in Business Week from 12 June 2008, May We Have Your Attention, Please? by Maggie Jackson.

It's official: The average knowledge worker has the attention span of a sparrow. Roughly once every three minutes, typical cubicle dwellers set aside whatever they're doing and start something else—anything else. It could be answering the phone, checking e-mail, responding to an instant message, clicking over to YouTube (GOOG), or posting something amusing on Facebook. Constant interruptions are the Achilles' heel of the information economy in the U.S. These distractions consume as much as 28% of the average U.S. worker's day, including recovery time, and sap productivity to the tune of $650 billion a year, according to Basex, a business research company in New York City.

I was tempted to excise some of the numbers in there, because I am not sure I believe them.  (The usual comment about if they weren't "being distracted" what would they be doing instead.)

The article highlights a couple of technical advances that attempt to gauge the attention state of the user and decide whether they can be interrupted.  One is a prototype email prioritization tool from Microsoft, and the other is layer on top of IM to help gauge when a user is available for IM.

I will hark back to my favorite comment here.  If you and your colleagues are overwhelmed with information you send each other, STOP DOING IT.  Luis Suarez has told us how to remove email from your daily work habits.  We also need to figure out how to do the simple things, like share useful information without burying it in your filing system or throwing megabytes at your entire mailing list.  Technology isn't going to fix the problem of information overload: we need to help each other.

1 Comment(s)

Jordan Frank said:

Is an attention shift every 3 minutes too much, just enough or too infrequent?? One of my recent posts about multi-tasking turtles that beat focused hares comments on research in the MIT Sloan Management review which shows how multi-taskers take longer to finish any given project, but get more projects done in less time. This was based on an analysis of per worker e-mail habits and per worker productivity.

In a personal analysis of a day's work our own Traction TeamPage server, I discovered that in 24 hours, a developer and QA group produced 95 Articles (blog or wiki type pages), 66 comments, 12 edits, 58 tag changes and 118 attachments (which could be anything from Word docs to images). This accounts for well over 200 "messages" in a single day, but it's manageable because of the content management approach and delivery channel. If this same process were repeated in e-mail alone, the challenge of handling that same load would ominous.

So, the issue is not one of too much information or too many messages. Chances are we need to "send" each other MORE information, not less.The issue at hand is a matter of how to store and deliver the same or greater amounts of information more efficiently so we can handle much greater information traffic and more handle interruptions more easily.

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