The information in this article is critical to your well-being, your success, your business and your health but you will probably not make it to the end, at least not without interruptions and multiple distractions. While reading, you will receive at least 5-15 emails, one or two phone calls, 3-25 instant or text messages and a colleague or two may pop-by for a ‘quick’ chat. You may visit a Web site and get distracted though I do promise to keep this interesting enough so you come back.
The modern open plan office environment is not good fro your brain
How many hours a day do you send ‘doing’ email? Then you’ll try doing other tasks, with some success or not as the day appears to dictate. A 2005 study showed that the typical knowledge worker allows distractions to eat up 25% of the working day, that they spend 11 minutes on a task before distraction and it then takes 25 minutes to return to the original task.
Whatever your job title, you probably spend a large proportion of your time using your computer. Of course, you may divide that time between a tablet, a smart phone and a computer but it is all screen working for want of a better phrase.
We could hark back to the ‘good old days’ when a computer filled an entire floor of the building and was used by strange looking science-types wearing white coats and the secretarial pool spent most of their time typing carbon copies or cleaning the Gestener machine ink from their hands. Those days when sending a file to someone involved boarding a train or licking a stamp. When a telephone on your desk was a mark of prestige and seniority.
But it’s not the 1960’s. We have incredible technology designed to enable instant communication, smart, colourful, bright open office filled with a buzz of chatter, air conditioning, beeps, rings and whirrings and dynamic young executives looking pale and exhausted, buds in ear, heads down and carpal tunnel syndrome shooting tiny spasms of pain to an already overloaded brain.
Did someone forget that we are human beings? People now switch activities every 3 minutes!
All of these distractions and activity switching consumes a huge amount of energy in your brain.
Your thinking brain is magnificently limited
Your brain is a wonderful and incredibly complex thing. It is magnificent when we consider just what human brains are capable of conceiving and doing. At the same time, it is limited. We are limited.
The executive ‘thinking’ part of your brain is the Pre Frontal Cortex
, or the PFC for short. This is where we understand, make decisions, choose what to recall and what to memorize and it’s also the place where we choose what to not think about.
I like David Rock’s analogy from his book; “Your Brain at Work
” to think of your PFC as a theatre stage. External data from your senses is like actors coming in from the wings of the stage, while internal thoughts are like audience members climbing onto the stage. And there are two issues about the PFC which help us understand when we appreciate them:
- The PFC stage is small – enabling us to have 3 or 4* actors on stage at a time only, and
- Like a theatre requiring massive floodlighting, the PFC consumes a lot of energy that is rapidly depleted.
To really concentrate on something means that they need to take centre stage and be brightly lit. Meanwhile, your senses are bombarded with data from the outside world with its actors flitting across the stage vying for attention and to distract you from holding onto that thought, burning energy. Some audience members climb on stage similarly seeking the limelight as your internal world reminds you of things you should have done, need to do or what you might be planning for later in the day. Some of your internal thoughts and much of the external data you can ignore as unimportant, but novelty might be a threat and your Anterior Cingulate Cortex
is constantly scanning the information (external and internal) for novelty. Anything unexpected. And novelty gets attention – pushed straight onto centre stage. Whatever you were trying to concentrate on gets sidelined or even pushed off-stage and into the audience, where it must await a chance to climb back up, get into character again and play its part.
*George A. Miller‘s study is probably the most widely accepted, even though it is wrong. He believed that the number of items we can hold in working memory – on stage of the PFC – is seven. seven numbers, seven words. But even then, if the numbers are long or the words complex, or in an unknown language, the number is significantly reduced. Nelson Cowan at the the University of Missouri-Columbia in a 2001 study posits that the number of actors is more likely four. Brian McElree at New York University suggests that it is just one.
The multi-tasking myth
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard managers trot out the trite phrase: “They’d just get more done if they learned how to multi-task properly.” Sure, you can drive your car and talk at the same time. True, you can continue walking and testing simultaneously, and many other examples besides. But can you do two cognitive tasks simultaneously. Let’s have a little play shall we? As you continue reading the next paragraph, please place a phone call to your best friend and ask them about their day, listening attentively to their response. Ready? Call them now and when they answer, read on.
In the 1980’s, Harold Pashler experimented using 2 cognitive tasks at once and showed that the participants capacity drops from that of a Harvard MBA to an 8 year old. When experimenting with one physical task and one mental task, performance on both was reduced by 20%, but with two cognitive tasks it dropped by 50%. Why is this so? Because the physical task would require little from the PFC as most of it is routine – something that your Basal Ganglia look after though there is a constant reporting stream going to the PFC to inform you that everything is under control. Whereas, two cognitive tasks require activity on your small PFC stage. Like two actors shoving and pushing each other out of the way determined to be the one speaking.
Are you back with me again? How was your experiment? Did you successfully read and understand the above paragraph and communicate with your best friend? Could you actually do both, simultaneously? A few of you are going to be stubborn and say yes, and I did so perfectly. Sure? Stop for a while and ask your friend.
Back in 1998, Linda Stone
, former VP at Microsoft, coined the phrase “Continuous partial attention
.” A state where we keep a top level item in focus whilst continuously scanning the periphery for anything more important. A state that leads to constant and intense mental exhaustion. In the 15 years since then, we’re not just doing that, we’re keeping a wary ear out for the subtle beep (or vibration) of our phone, or a little notification on the screen ahead of us informing us of that ever so, much more important, vital message from… well I don’t know, but I just have to check, ‘just in case’ it’s important.
Texting makes you dumb.
A University of London study for HP
showed constant emailing and texting reduced IQ score by 10 points. The equivalent of losing a nights sleep and three times worse than smoking cannabis. Glen Wilson, who conducted the study describes the problem as ‘Infomania’ and also finding that one in five workers would answer emails or texts during a meal or social engagement, while two thirds admitted to checking emails outside of office hours or whilst on holiday.
My own, unscientific study some 9 years later in Singapore revealed that it’s more like 75% who will check messages during meals or social engagements. Indeed, I watched two young lovers dancing one night with phones in hand texting other friends behind each others backs!
Such constant alertness increases allostatic load, a reading of stress hormones, and induces a feeling of constant crisis. Your PFC is burning energy and you need a glucose top up or to rest.
Interestingly, if you respond quickly to texts or emails, people will send you more issues for you to respond to, regardless of your expertise to resolve them. Remember, your Anterior Cingulate Cortex activates for novelty – and believe me, responding quickly, that’s pretty novel.
Let’s have another little play with your mind shall we? Try working on a complex issue and respond to someone asking where you went for lunch.
And how many interruptions to your reading have you experienced?
Open-Plan Offices are Satan’s tool to hamper productivity
I suspect that most people reading this want to increase their own productivity and, more critically, the productivity of their team and organization. So why do so many organizations create offices that hamper productivity? Why are so many HR policies such as ‘flexi-working’, good intentioned yet seriously flawed in execution? Perhaps the better question is not “how do we increase productivity?”, rather it should be: “How do we create more value?”
RSA Animate has an excellent, short video on re-imaging work – take 9 minutes to watch this and allow your brain to absorb some key ideas before we go on.
The trend for open-plan offices started in Hamburg, Germany in the 1950’s to facilitate the flow of communication and ideas. However, there is overwhelming evidence that it actually undermines the very things it was supposed to achieve.
A University of Calgary study in 1997
found an oil company’s new open-plan office was disruptive, stressful, and cumbersome, and, instead of feeling closer, coworkers felt distant, dissatisfied, and resentful. Productivity fell.
A 2011 study
by psychologist Matthew Davis found that, open offices were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. Compared with standard offices, employees experienced more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation. A survey
of 38,000 workers by David Craig found that interruptions by colleagues were detrimental to productivity, and that the more senior the employee, the worse she fared
The noise of open-plan offices reduces cognitive ability
and is known to impairs
the ability to recall information or even do simple math. Another study at Cornell University
shows an increase in the production of norepiphrine (adrenaline) in open-plan offices which reduces motivation and performance.
You may be thinking that this is just some old fogey clamouring for his own office. That young people like open-plan offices… After all, young people have been multi-tasking for most of their short careers, but no, a 2012 study
found that conversation and even laughter noise in the office was just as distracting for those born after 1982, as those of us who were gainfully employed at their birth.
So, the notion that in an open-plan office you can easily interrupt a colleague to share your brilliant idea increases noise which increases stress hormone production, distracts you from whatever you were trying to concentrate on with a 25 minute gap before you’ll get back on task, is detrimental to your health, impairs your cognitive ability, reduces the very creative thinking it was supposed to increase, and reduces productivity.
We don’t need to focus, we need to not focus on the wrong things.
If you were designing a new car would you put the braking system inside the hot engine? Well God did. The part of our brain where we inhibit thoughts is in the ventro-lateral pre-frontal cortex. Just behind your temples.
Because our braking system is in the energy hungry PFC, it only works well every now and again. And once you inhibit one thought, it’s like the brake pads need replacing immediately because they’re burnt out. Inhibiting another thought is more difficult, a third near impossible.
This is what we laughing call “Self-control”. Though we do have some, We have about 2 tenths of a second between the desire to do something and actually doing it where we can choose to veto the action.
The thought that triggered the desire… well that happened 3 tenths of a second before the desire. Catch it if you can. The entire half second is called an ‘action potential’ starting from the initial brain signal to the desire to act to the action. It is all in the blink of an eye.
So yes, you can choose to not be interrupted, to not be distracted, not to respond instantly to your smartphone ping, to ignore your colleague, to not notice that novel thing. But for how long can you NOT do all this?
Let’s help our own brains use the talents you have been so richly endowed. Get an office. An office with a door that closes. Choose one device to work on at a time and turn the others off. Not mute, not vibro-alert, off. Work on one task at a time and do it well. Plan and schedule time for social interactions, for chats with colleagues. Make time for lunch, and get home on time.
Let’s have one last play with your mind before I go. You can improve your productivity by at least 20%. What will you do? Do the same in less time and enjoy more of that thing we call ‘life’. Or will you do more in the same time? I leave you with the actors on your stage to decide.