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Driven to distraction by technology

Workers drowning in e-mail, cell calls and IMs are finding ways to break free--and software makers are trying to meet their needs.

The typical office worker is interrupted every three minutes by a phone call, e-mail, instant message or other distraction. The problem is that it takes about eight uninterrupted minutes for our brains to get into a really creative state.

The result, says Carl Honore, journalist and author of "In Praise of Slowness," is a situation where the digital communications that were supposed to make working lives run more smoothly are actually preventing people from getting critical tasks accomplished.

Honore, who cited the estimate of an interruption every three minutes, acknowledges that he would not part with his laptop or phone. But he adds that "it's possible to get too much of a good thing. As a society, that's where we are at the moment."

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What's new:
The digital communications supposed to make things run more smoothly are actually preventing people from getting critical tasks accomplished.

Bottom line:
People are coming up with low-tech strategies and companies are developing software to help workers tackle the flood of e-mail, calls and messages.

More stories on digital communication

Microsoft, which created much of the software that allows for instant interruptions, such as the alerts that pop up with each new e-mail, is aware of the problem.

"It used to be: 'I've got to be online, it's so frustrating that I can't get on,'" said Chris Capossela, a vice president in Microsoft's Information Worker unit. "Now that's happened. People are ultraconnected. And you know what? Now they are starting to realize, 'Wow, I want to actually stop getting interrupted.'"

For years, technology has worked to get people more connected. In the office there's e-mail, instant messages and the phone. On the road, cell phones and BlackBerrys enable workers to stay in touch with colleagues.

There is a mini rebellion under way, however. Desperate for some quiet time to think, people are coming up with low-tech strategies to get away from all their technology. That has Microsoft and others taking note and looking for ways to create software that can be more adept at preventing interruptions.

"If you don't have that sort of free time to dream and muse and mull, then you are not being creative, by definition," said Dan Russell, a senior manager at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif.

After concluding three years ago that he was becoming a slave to e-mail, Russell decided to put his foot down. These days, he takes his time replying to messages. All his responses say at the bottom: "Join the slow email movement! Read your mail just twice each day. Recapture your life's time and relearn to dream."

Time out

Russell has turned off the e-mail settings that deliver a note as soon as it is received. Instead, he pulls down unread messages twice a day. His approach may irk those who want a speedy reply, but he said it has cut the time he spends on e-mail in half, to less than two hours a day.

The IBM researcher has other tricks, too. He leaves his cell phone in the car and doesn't use instant messaging software. And when he really needs some uninterrupted time to think, he will schedule the break as an important out-of-the-office event. In reality, he will just find a nearby office and close the door.

Russell acknowledges, though, that his efforts have only a limited effect without others around him joining in--and so far, he hasn't managed to persuade many to slow down. "I'm making no headway in the world," he said.

The problem appears to be getting worse. A study by Hewlett-Packard earlier this year found that 62 percent of British adults are addicted to their e-mail--checking messages during meetings, after working hours and on vacation. Half of workers felt a need to respond to e-mails immediately or within an hour, and one in five people reported being "happy" to interrupt a business or social gathering to respond to an e-mail or phone message.

Even the last few bastions of disconnectedness are being wired. For Nasdaq CEO Bob Greifeld, the airplane was the one place he could count on for some time to step back and ponder things.

"That was clearly a place where you could get away," Greifeld said. Increasingly, though, Greifeld said that airlines are starting to offer broadband Internet access.

It's all part of a culture shift that has accompanied all of the new modes of communications. These days, corporate culture frowns on those who turn off their instant messaging software or don't respond quickly to the latest e-mail.

"People start to look at you with contempt or disgust if you shift away from the technology," Honore said.

Businesses could benefit from introducing a collective effort to switch off, Honore said. He points to the marketing department at Veritas Software, which last year instituted "E-mail-free Fridays" for its marketing department. The move came at the behest of Jeremy Burton, an executive vice president who was finding his in-box stuffed with 400 messages a day, many from his own department.

In Burton's department, employees can't e-mail one another on Friday, but they are allowed to e-mail customers or other parts of the storage company if they have to. The result? Workers spend more time connecting face to face, and Burton finds his in-box is only half as full.

And when it comes to finishing up a big project, many workers are unplugging altogether--something that Microsoft's Capossela says should not have to be the answer.

Addicted to noise

Well-written software could offer a better solution, he said. It should help employees stay connected but enable them to receive only messages they want to get--from a boss or family member, say.

"Think about blocking off your calendar for work time," Capossela said. "If you were to say, 'Hey, this is work time for Project X,' you can imagine us getting smart about not bothering you about anything that is not related to Project X."

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has tried to make the case that however overwhelmed workers may feel, they are actually suffering from "information underload." The problem, he says, is that today's software doesn't do an adequate job of filtering information and presenting it in more useful ways.

Microsoft has not fully outlined its plans to ease the burden, but Capossela said a new version of Office due out next year will offer some help.

"With Office 12, we will do things to make it a lot easier for people to be more effective in the way they manage all of these communication mechanisms," Capossela said.

Different tack
IBM researcher Russell said that Big Blue is also working on better ways to manage scheduling for the next version of Lotus Workplace, part of IBM's collection of software that rivals Office.

But better software is not a cure-all, Capossela said. Although technology can and should make it easier to slow down, part of the change needs to be a different set of priorities.

"Technology has kind of turned the tables on us," Honore said. "We move to its speed and its rhythm."

And in addition to sapping our creativity, some studies suggest that we may not even be getting anywhere by trying to send an e-mail, talk to a co-worker and send instant messages to our boss at the same time. Russell says humans just aren't that good at doing many things at once.

The problem, Russell said, is that there are only certain types of tasks that humans are good at doing simultaneously. Cooking and talking on the phone go together fine, as does walking and chewing gum (for most people). But try and do three math problems at once, and you are sure to have a problem.

"The paradox of modern life is that multitasking is, in most cases, counterproductive," Russell said.