Not Safe For Work? Technology & productivity

In recent pieces on the internet in daily life I’ve written about digital detox on holiday, the addictive nature of social media, and the information overload that the internet gives us. To tie up the theme, I’m writing today about a downside of technology at work: distractions. You should stop reading this and get on with that report you need to do by Thursday (joke! Keep reading, this’ll only take 5 minutes).

Always Available?

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Self-distractions in any workplace are problematic – nothing like being caught browsing online by a music clip blaring out across your office in an otherwise studious silence – but technology’s unique ability to distract you feels especially cruel when you’re a freelancer or student because you have no boss and no ‘company time’ to be wasting. You are quite literally eating away at your own productivity and thus your earnings or project.

The internet is a relatively recent invention in historical terms, and mobile internet is younger still – remember, just a decade ago smartphone capabilities were unrecognisable from their performance today. I’ve written before about how being so plugged-in encourages almost addictive social media use, but the other awkward consequence of being so readily connected to technology is that we have become always available. This has come to be expected in the modern workplace where we are constantly connected to useful networks, but it also impairs our headspace for larger solo tasks.

Our tendency to start the day by answering emails means that we are attending to “firefighting” tasks that a) drain more time than we should really allocate to them, and b) set up an expectation to others that we are rapid responders. As a result, in the periods when we are not immediately available to others we will come off looking worse.

So how can we best address this conflict of interest? The internet is (somewhat ironically) full of suggestions for boosting productivity at work, amongst them this Lifehacker list and this Oliver Burkeman piece in the Guardian. One tip that comes up again and again is allocating that post-lunch slump to routine tasks, making email one of those tasks.

What I’ve found is that I hate the idea of the messages piling up throughout the morning without my attention, which is stupid because in my current job as a researcher I’m pretty unimportant in the grander scheme of things. Sure enough, addressing them all in one go, or in batches just twice each day at the same time, truly does free me up for working on bigger, conceptual work that deserves my priority. But it’s hard to keep email checking regimented when the sense of satisfaction answering emails gives you loops into a mental tick-list of your capability as a worker. Your brain tricks you into feeling that the relatively tiny task of answering an email is equal to much larger, more difficult jobs that you are understandably more reluctant to get stuck into. With the mental pay-off being equal, you can’t blame your brain for navigating you to the easier win.

How digital side-tasks slow you down

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We’re all aware of the distractions of physical side-tasks, like dealing with random requests in your workplace (is there anything worse than a colleague asking something that Google could explain better than you could?) But digital side-tasks, whether that’s email, messaging friends on Whatsapp, or just a quick check of social media, means that you may only be distracted by going online for 5 minutes as a respite from the concentration required in your real work, but that quick sidetrack has a much larger knock-on effect on your ability to return to the task at hand. It’s called task-switching, demonstrated in studies like this one from University of California and summarised in this ‘7-minute read‘ interview with the researcher and this New York Times article. The suggestion is that the human brain takes a disproportionately long time to re-focus on a task after checking social media, and I can believe it. I may only be checking out what’s going on online, but it’s like my brain has shifted out of clever gear and now needs some time to get back into higher-level thinking.

There’s an app for that

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To counter this, I’m trying the SelfControl app, amongst similar apps recommended by postgraduates and freelancers the world over. You type in a list of all the websites and apps you waste time on at work and set a timer for how long you want to keep yourself away from them. You cannot, cannot access anything but your work for that time, so you have no choice but to beaver away (I have to also put my phone in my bag to stop me switching to that. I know, I need a digital detox). The funny thing about it is I had no idea how often I went online to just read news content or to kill time – this morning SelfControl has stopped me checking a recipe I was going to cook, weather in major European cities (no idea why I always do that, but there’s a lot of cities so it wastes a lot of time) newspaper headlines (already read them eating my breakfast, so unlikely much had changed) and buying train tickets (valid surf, but the way I dither over booking trains means I should save the glorious indecision for my lunchbreak).

Whilst I think it’s a bit tragic that we need apps to stop us using our apps, you cannot deny that increased productivity is good for both us and our work. For those of us who have, well, any self-discipline, apps like SelfControl are overdoing it, but being more conscious of our online life and how long we spend on side-tasks seems reasonable. Similar to batching email work into certain times of day, perhaps the solution is to set a daily time limit for reasonable use in which you can indulge, guilt-free – preferably after working hours, which might lessen your desire to surf online anyway: the distraction factor is lower, and with any luck you’re sick of the sight of a screen.

30 minutes per day where you can surf Facebook as much as you like seems more than enough, but try timing your own usage – you might be surprised.

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