Distraction decreases IQ | Cost to business | Solution is EzidoesitIn the 20th century, it was understood that silence was necessary for focused and clear thinking. "White noise" was the term for distraction and was considered harmful to productivity. In the 21st century the perceived wisdom is that multiple stimuli are, if not beneficial, at least not harmful. Workers may listen to music or the radio, txt from their phones, browse the internet, update their Face Book and check their favourite twitter sites while attending to their work.

Research by RescueTime has shown that the typical information worker checks e-mail more than 50 times, uses instant messaging 77 times, and stops at 40 Web sites over the course of the day (1). Yet many think this distracting "noise" is not harmful to performance or health. Recent research and articles are arguing that this is not the case.

Distraction decreases IQ

A 2005 British clinical trial of workers found that the "IQ of those who tried to juggle messages and work fell by 10 points, the equivalent to missing a whole night's sleep and more than double the 4-point fall seen after smoking marijuana" (2).

It may be a myth that younger workers can handle distraction. A recent Oxford University study found that while younger workers were able to process information faster than mid-age workers, the older workers matched the younger workers when interruptions were introduced (3).

In the 1990s the idea of continuous partial attention, multitasking, was introduced. While possible in short bursts, in large doses, it contributes to stress, operating in crisis mode, and to compromised reflection, decision making, and creatively. David E Meyer says "Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes" (3). He also notes that multitasking may contribute to the loss of short-term memory (4).

It may be that constant emailing has a psychological dimension in that e-mail messages provide a feedback loop that makes the receiver feel important (1).

The Cost to Business

A USA study on Microsoft employees found that it takes, on average, nearly 17 minutes for a worker interrupted by an e-mail to get back to what they were doing before the email interruption (5).

Multitasking is detrimental to the quality of work produced when the tasks being worked on simultaneously require full attention (5).

Research out of California-Irvine found that workers spent only about 3 minutes on average on a task before switching tasks or being interrupted (7). Research by Basex puts the US business cost at $900 billion a year in lost productivity (1).

The Solution

It is not the technology that is bad, the damage is in letting the deluge of information take control of us rather than us taking control of the information (5).

Dr Hallowell insists we take control "by creatively engineering one’s environment and one’s emotional and physical health." (7).

Departments and small units at Intel and other companies are encouraging workers to check e-mail messages less frequently (2), touch information once (5); schedules breaks and, where possible, deal with things as they arise.

K. Renner BA. MA Psych (Hons)

  1.  Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast. New York Times. [Online] June 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/14/technology/14email.html?_r=2&sq=productivity.
  2.  E-mails 'hurt IQ more than pot '. CNN.com. [Online] April 2005. http://www.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/europe/04/22/text.iq.
  3. Slow Down, Brave Multitasker, and Don’t Read This in Traffic. New York Times. [Online] June 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/25/business/25multi.html?_r=1&ei=5090&en=f2956114b1.
  4. The Myth of Multitasking. The New Atlantis. [Online] May 2008.
  5. One thing at a time: they say your IQ drops by ten points when you start multitasking. TimesOnLine. [Online] June 2009. http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/columnists/article6498421.ece?print=ye.
  6. Multitasking notes. Library Leadership Network. [Online] June 2009. http://pln.palinet.org/wiki/index.php/Multitasking_notes.
  7. Tackling Information Overload . Information Today. [Online] May 2009. http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/Spotlight/Tackling-Information-Overload-53712.asp.