Start Page: Interruption addiction takes focus to break

Kim Brand
March 27, 2013
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StartPageBrand.jpgTime management systems used to be popular. They are irrelevant now because you don’t have any time to manage. “Time Management” is an anachronism like “How to Win Friends” or “The Palmer Method.” The critical asset you must now learn to manage is your attention.

Ever since the invention of the telephone in 1876 some “gadget” has without warning or apology demanded your personal attention on a schedule it controlled. The purpose of the communication was almost always to put another item on your to-do list. People who cared about getting things done soon learned to insulate themselves from the interruptions; they employed secretaries, then automated call attendants and voice mail.

However, with the invention of the mobile phone we started “mainlining” the interruptions. Taking or making a call on the go signaled the status of being important and created the illusion of greater productivity. We began to multitask.

Email arrived in the 1980s. Interruptions could be automated, and the cost to create an interruption fell dramatically. Only 10 years ago, Blackberry devices began delivering email to your phone so your office could be anywhere you were . . . now, interruptions could be delivered everywhere!

Research has shown that a mind in a constant state of interruption loses its ability to focus and plan. A CNN report concludes that the constant interruption of email actually lowers your IQ. But the assault on our attention has become more severe than phone calls and email. We have allowed many more sources of interruptions to invade our thinking time: Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, chat requests and text messages among them.
startpage-factbox.gifMy belief is that we have become addicted to these interruptions. When something in our world isn’t interrupting us we now crave the stimulation to a degree that we generate thoughts to interrupt ourselves. (Ever check your email in the bathroom?) Worse, we have become accustomed to shallow thinking and diluted focus.

According to Maggie Jackson, author of the book “Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age,” technology is responsible for “… eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention – the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress. … The erosion of attention is the key to understanding why we are on the cusp of a time of widespread cultural and social losses.”

My ambition is to take back the attention I lost when I turned my life over to the gadgets that were supposed to make me more productive.

Rule 1: Establish boundaries and expectations

Anyone who depends on you has likely become dependent on being able to interrupt you at any time and expect an immediate response. Fix that. I include a link to my email policies in my signature block. One of my rules is to set the expectation that a reply might take a day. For faster service, call the office.

Rule 2: Turn it off

This applies to your phone and your email. Don’t tempt yourself. If you can’t stand knowing that your phone won’t be answered, hand it to your secretary. Your callers will be impressed; they may be better served and you’ll be able to enjoy some quiet time. Don’t cheat: turn off the email – don’t just minimize it or disable the pop-ups.

A byproduct of turning off your email and phone means you won’t be interrupting others as often. Bundle your communication activities into a few time periods a day.

Rule 3: Prioritize

Today, the most critical resource you manage is your attention. The expression “pay attention” is literally true. When you pay attention you are trading something precious for what in many cases may be worthless – and you can’t know until you pay it. In the bargain you lose the capacity to focus and sacrifice your state of “flow” where studies have shown many of the greatest ideas and progress you desire originate. Some researchers estimate that it may take 15 to 20 minutes to get back to where you were working after a single interruption.

Prioritizing may be the hardest part because it means admitting that you can’t multitask. Multitasking is a powerful illusion we fool ourselves into believing is possible. Actually, your brain can’t do more than one thing at a time and fMRI scans prove it.

This article is part one of two. In my next article I will show you how to use Outlook rules to create “attention zones” that can help prioritize your limited attention to the most important emails. If you can’t wait, send me an email, and I’ll send you the second installment of this two-part column in advance.•


Kim Brand is a technology expert and President of Computer Experts Inc. He is the inventor of FileSafe. He speaks and writes frequently on technology subjects – making them interesting and understandable. Brand can be contacted by email, or call 317-833-3000. The opinions expressed are those of the author.


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