According to a recent article in the New York Times, information is no longer the scarce resource it once was, attention is. The piece, entitled Meet the Life Hackers, is a fascinating look at how modern workers divide their attention x number of ways. The article delves into a recent study conducted by Gloria Mark, a scientist of “human-computer interactions”:

Each employee spent only 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted and whisked off to do something else. What’s more, each 11-minute project was itself fragmented into even shorter three-minute tasks, like answering e-mail messages, reading a Web page or working on a spreadsheet. And each time a worker was distracted from a task, it would take, on average, 25 minutes to return to that task. To perform an office job today, it seems, your attention must skip like a stone across water all day long, touching down only periodically.

Augh! Thinking about a typical day at work, it became obvious to me that we often only have ourselves to blame. Let’s examine a typical day in the office. If you’re anything like me, once logged on, I fire up Notes, Sametime, and Firefox. Once done, I check out the day’s news and some of my RSS subscriptions whilst catching up with colleagues, prioritising email, logging on to the telephone system and reading changes to our wiki. That’s a lot of information flowing around already, and the coffee’s still cooling.

Of course, I soon open up the IDE and start on the real work to be done. But all through the day I am interrupted — and I interrupt others — via Sametime or the ’phone. It seems that whilst we may moan about “information overload” and the horrendous amount of multi-tasking that goes on in the modern workplace, we also welcome all this stuff. Else why fire up the instant messaging system? Why log on to the telephone? Why start the email client first thing in the morning? Why get so involved in this new-fangled RSS thing??

“In fairness, I think we bring some of this on ourselves,” says Merlin Mann, the founder of the popular life-hacking site “We’d rather die than be bored for a few minutes, so we just surround ourselves with distractions…”

There is a lot more in the NYT piece, and it’s well-worth a read. The article ranges over modern office life, the history of “interruption science”, astronauts, how multiple computer screens can help, GTD, HAL-like software, the rise of the Post-ItTM, and so on. Go on, interrupt your working day to read it.

» Read more…

Via Jennifer Pahlka.

Update: I’ve just noticed that Joel Spolsky posted about this the other week, and has some interesting comments.

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Best described as a simpleton, but kindly. You can read more here.