Continuous Partial Attention: Designing A Less Distracted Future Of Work

Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better – Nicholas Carr , The Shallows

You’d have thought we’d have given up on the physical office by now.

UK workers spend a year of their lives in meetings. If you work in the public sector it’s even worse – with nearly 2 years waste clocked up for every worker.

You spend another year of your life commuting to and from work. At a total cost of about £50,000.

You spend about 60% of your time on email,  about 4 years of your life.

With all this apparent evidence you’d expect to a see a swift migration away from the office but this is exactly what’s NOT happening.

Average commuting time to work is increasing despite research showing that every extra minute spent travelling to and from work reduces job and leisure time satisfaction, increases strain and worsens mental health.

Not that all this effort is achieving much – despite our technological advancements – productivity in the last decade was the worst since the 1820’s.

The problem isn’t just the physical office anymore – our work accompanies us on a variety of screens wherever we go.

A work task can sit in the same queue as an alert about a Netflix series. What we haven’t done is considered how to reshape work in a world of digital technologies and a brutal competition for attention.

Clearly, we haven’t found the balance – we just aren’t using technology to its full potential. We are running against the machines rather than running with them.

Is Microsoft Office A Bigger Productivity Drain Than Candy Crush Saga?

In his latest post, Tim Harford makes an important point – that technology has made generalists of us all. General purpose devices running software such as Microsoft Office has meant anyone can have a go at anything — with “well-paid middle managers with no design skills taking far too long to produce ugly slides that nobody wants to look at”.

In my first job, I was literally not allowed to write a letter to a customer. It was deemed more efficient to be done by a typing pool comprised almost entirely of middle-aged women. Anachronistic for sure, but also error-free.

The point that Tim makes is that this drive to make us all-rounders – self-serving but ultimately average at everything – may lead to a productivity loss we haven’t even considered.

Habitually Distracted Minds

The typical smartphone user touches their phone about 2,500 times each day, meaning we are pretty susceptible to distraction. The problem is that distracted moments can quickly lead to distracted days.

Today we have a number of different sources of notifications in the workplace competing for our attention. I even had an automated reminder at 6am on Christmas Day from a particularly persistent workplace irritant. Robots don’t sleep. Or celebrate Christmas apparently.

This way of working – constant interruption by external stimuli – is termed “continuous partial attention”. Simultaneous attention is given to a number of sources of incoming information, but only at a very superficial level.

This is destructive to achieving any sort of ‘flow’ – the state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.

Steven Kotler writes that in a 10-year study,  executives reported being five times more productive in flow. This means, if you can spend Monday in flow, you’ll get as much done as everyone else does in a week.

The real issue here is how we design the future of work – rather than letting the technology dictate what that looks like through a constant series of app notifications, prompts, and email reminders.

At Bromford we’ve made a start – setting design principles for 30 different service areas, but we need to go much further. With the rise of artificial intelligence and machines that will be capable of an increasingly wide set of tasks, we need to consider the balance between generalists and specialists.

The future of work isn’t a place you go.

It’s better to think of it as a new operating system for creating value and getting things done in environments that limit constant interruption.

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