Image: Koshyk (Flickr)

For the past six years my colleague Terry Grim and I have taught the opening course in the Administrators Masters Program of the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. The class is a two-day plunge into management basics: leadership skills, management skills, fundamentals of project management, communication skills, customer service, and effective strategy—plus a practical exercise that ties all the modules together.

In the communication skills overview I give some tips for using communication technology. One of those tips is, “Multi-tasking is an attractive myth,” by which I mean that while you may think you can do several things at once, in fact your mind is focused on only one at a time.

I’ve always believed that, but lately there’s more data to back me up. Melinda Beck, writing for the Wall Street Journal, reported a recent study that explained the “cocktail party effect’—that fact that you can focus on a single speaker in the midst of many competing noises. It turns out that the brain’s auditory cortex processes hearing input to increase the sound on which you are focused and suppress other sounds. In other words, our brains are wired for focused attention.

The problem is that, beginning with the telegraph, modern communications technology has been designed to interrupt us. Calls and emails, messages and tweets create a constant stream of pseudo-urgent digital tugs at our attention. The consequences include sub-optimal work performance (creativity is especially hindered), stress, and even addiction. We could simply turn the technology off, but few of us choose to do so.

But what if technology were designed to work with my brain, not against it? What would it look like to design communication technology predicated on the fact that my brain works best when it’s focused on one thing? That’s a future that’s fun to think about. Imagine an intelligent software agent:

  • that understands my priorities, either because it asks me for them or because it deduces them based on my workflow. (There’s a scary thought. If an IT device tracked your attention and activities for a week, what priorities would it identify?)
  • that screens my interruptions, sorting them into bins like “now” (for the truly urgent and important), “later” (for items that are important but don’t justify the loss of productivity that an interruption would cause), and “never” (for the truly unimportant).
  • that structures my time and tasks, gathering all the various threads of each priority so that I can spend productive, concentrated time on it before moving on to the next one.
  • that keeps me on task by sensing when I’ve allowed myself to be interrupted and drawing me back to the priority on which I need to focus.

Here’s a small step in the right direction. A software developer recently described an Android application called ”Shuuush!” When activated it silences all phone noise and vibrations. After it’s deactivated it catches the user up on any missed notifications. There’s a “white list” feature so your significant other, for example, can get through to you.

I’m sure you can think of more and better examples. I’d like to try that sort of technology.

Visitors to the U.S Capitol building are issued tickets in the form of stickers that they are required to wear on the tour of the building. While the relatively new visitor center (opened 2008) is full of modern tour conveniences and security features, what it lacks are well-positioned garbage cans. The image at the left  is an equipment box at the end of a long walkway from the front door. While there are garbage cans near the door, visitors are presumably so caught up in discussing what they saw or planning their next stop that they don’t get around to peeling off their stickers until they reach the end of the sidewalk. At which point, they make do with whatever receptacle (or equipment boxes) they can find.

 

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