technological relatives, email and social media —
on our brains. In their book The Distracted Mind:
Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (The MIT
Press, 2016), neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry D. Rosen reveal what happens in our
brains when we get interrupted or self-distract and
how that affects us behaviorally and psychologically.
The book explains how internet-connected devices
and expectations for immediate responses to communications degrade our attention, with
implications not just for productivity but also for
mental health and stress levels in the workplace.
Rosen, a professor emeritus and past chair of the psychology
department at California State University, Dominguez Hills, communicated by email with MIT Sloan Management Review about
what managers can do to minimize unnecessary interruptions for
their staff. The interview was conducted by freelance journalist
Frieda Klotz, and what follows is an edited and condensed version
of their conversation.
MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW: Your book The Distracted Mind
describes a workplace in which employees are expected to respond
instantly to messages, even at the cost of interrupting work on important tasks or projects. What mistakes do managers make in their
assumptions of how their employees should use technology at work?
ROSEN: Managers want as much
productivity as possible, of
course, but they should be aware
that when employees are inter-
rupted by a communication such
as email, IM, or text, it not only
distracts their attention, but it
can keep them away from the
task they were engaged in for a
substantial period of time. One study estimates that the resumption
lag in getting back to the original task is nearly half an hour, on
average. In addition, when people return to the task, they have to
reactivate the brain networks that were being used to address it.
That takes additional time and effort.
Ultimately, employees can do just as good a job as they would
if they haven’t been interrupted, because they work more quickly
than ever after the interruption. But this comes at
a cost: time delays, the need to use extra work
hours to complete the interrupted tasks, and addi-
tional stress. Workers are being interrupted far too
often and suffering far too much unnecessary
frustration and anxiety as a result.
Researchers are just now starting to compile
data on the impact of technology use on the brain,
on sleep, on productivity, and on learning, and
have found strong negative effects in many cases.
The research clearly indicates that the impact from
so many interruptions on our mental and emo-
tional functioning is vast and needs to be addressed.
You write that the majority of tech-induced interruptions that take
place at work are self-generated, where employees are checking
in, checking email, and checking up on one another — without
external direction. How can business leaders help?
ROSEN: A general plan needs to be in place across the organization to help workers avoid this constant checking-in behavior.
First, the business itself must implement policies on online
communications. Some companies have a 7-to- 7 rule, where
communications sent before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. don’t need to
be answered until the workday begins.
Second, we have, over time, built up expectations that communications deserve priority over everything else and that we
should address them immediately. But we must start changing
these expectations. One way is to set a workplace norm that digital communications should be dealt with in, say, 30 minutes, or
whatever works. If a communication is vital, then it should be
moved to a phone call or even a face-to-face discussion so that it
gets addressed immediately.
Third, we have developed an almost Pavlovian response to incoming communications, which we have to quell. In the book, we
discuss a technique called a “tech break.” This means that you
close down any websites on devices that are not relevant to work,
including email and texting, and you set a timer on the phone for
15 minutes. You place the phone directly in your line of sight —
but upside down to remove the flashing alerts from your line of
sight — as a reminder that you’re still on tech break. When the
alarm rings, you can check anything for one minute. Then you
“Some companies have a 7-to- 7 rule, where communications
sent before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. don’t need to be answered
until the workday begins.”
The Heavy Toll of ‘Always On’ Technology (Continued from page 7)