The Distraction Tax

You are the consummate IT Professional, commanding the world from your desktop. You have all your critical applications running; email, instant messaging, your software development tools, your Skype phone...even a weather and news app. You are a multi-tasking machine, taking in vast quantities of information and directing your attention effortlessly to important tasks in order of priority. You've just responded to the email from your manager about yesterday's build, and now the DB Admin has IM'd you with a rather urgent question, which you answer with alacrity. The dentist called and you rescheduled your appointment. With the decks cleared, you spend a few moments to recall where you left off with your coding. Just in time for the phone to ring...darned head-hunters! Back to work. Oh look, our quarterly results email just came in!

On some level it feels great to be connected in real-time to everything important in the world. You may actually think you're an expert multi-tasker and that you're able to handle the deluge of data. But you're not, and you can't.

As Information Technology professionals we have great jobs because we can do something computers can't do (yet); we use the super computers in our heads to solve complex problems in creative and innovative ways. But creativity only comes when we give our brains the space they need to operate properly.The fact of the matter is that we are subjected to a barrage of data and distractions that force us to shift our attention from task-to-task, and each time this happens we pay a price. I call it the "Distraction Tax".

Even just having the opportunity to multi-task is detrimental to cognitive performance. Glenn Wilson, former visiting professor of psychology at Gresham College, London, found that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, and an email is sitting unread in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points.

I recently read a book called The Organized Mind, Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by neuroscientist Dr. Daniel J. Levitin. In it, he explains how the brain processes information, and the limitations our 32-bit brains are facing in a 256-bit world. He offers many practical tips and tricks on how to reduce the information clutter in our lives and make more space for deep attention - that place where creativity and innovation comes from.

I have adopted a few simple techniques from his book that I've found to be very useful, including using a system of PostIt notes to externalize memory and categorize and prioritize daily tasks - everything from architecting a new software solution to getting a haircut. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to bring a bit more order to the flood of data we are confronted with every day.

Shankar Vedantam, host of the poplar Hidden Brain podcast on NPR, did a wonderful 'cast on this topic. If you can spare 45 minutes to listen to it, it will change your life as a software developer.In it, Vedantam explores the steep price of multitasking with a panel of cognition experts, and helps us find ways to focus on what's truly important. In a nutshell, you need to set time aside every day for focused thought, and if you're a manager, help your team find the time too. You will be much more productive and innovative if you have several hours of "quiet time" in which to let your brain do what it's best at - actually thinking - not robotically responding to every stimulus every minute of the day.

For my part, I block off chunks of "do not disturb" time in my calendar. In these blocks of time I remove all distractions - shut down the smart phone, close Outlook and IM, and shut off the radio. Then I focus on one problem, whether it be thinking about a vexing technical issue, delving into some serious coding, thinking about a personnel problem or writing a blog post. I also have blocks of time throughout the day that are reserved for answering emails and routine operational work. Grouping all the mindless routine work together into chunks instead of spreading it out over the course of a day is a great way to free up time for deep work.

I also do as much as I can to protect my team members from productivity-killing distractions. I work hard to shield them from direct emails and IM's from others in the company, and I encourage them to block off their own time for thought and problem solving.

You may feel like setting aside time for deep thought is a luxury you can't afford, and that your value comes from being "accessible" at all times. But I would argue that your value is your imagination - and the better your brain works the more value it offers. Amoebas simply react to stimulus as they are exposed to it, but we humans can be more proactive about how we spend our time. Let's not let distractions and information overload rob us of deep work. Instead, let's use that gift we have between our ears to actually CREATE and INNOVATE!

What tricks do you use in your professional life to handle information overload and focus on deep thought? I would love to hear about it!


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