start again. This is a flexible plan, so it can be longer than one
minute, but it needs to be timed. You go 15 minutes without
checking in and then increase it to 20 and then 30 minutes.
You say the mental cost of interruptions is increased stress and
frustration. What else can managers do to alleviate tech-induced
exhaustion and burnout in their employees?
ROSEN: Implementing the tech-break strategy that I outlined above,
along with technology-free hours and even technology-free zones in
the office, will go a long way toward alleviating stress and stress-related issues.
This will take time, and, in particular,
it will require total approval and support
from management, because it will mean
that a manager’s communication might
not be answered immediately. Managers
will have to assess whether receiving an
immediate response to a message is worth
the concomitant stress and strain placed
on their employees of having to complete
tasks while being constantly interrupted.
Any workplace change demands that
managers change their expectations.
The open-plan office has been around for a
long time, but you point out that it astronomically increases the likelihood of external
disruptions. Have modern office layouts, which have been adopted by
leading companies such as Google, Facebook, and Goldman Sachs
with the goal of improving collaboration, been a mistake?
ROSEN: As the research cited in the book shows, open offices create
situations in which workers are ripe for distraction, and distraction
negatively impacts performance. There are ways to make an open office
work, but it takes leadership and support from upper management.
In some open offices, employees wear noise-canceling headphones. In others, they put up a red sign or even a red light that
says, “I am not to be interrupted.” When they are available again,
they change it to green. Collaboration is still entirely possible, but
only during the periods when the employee has time. Taking control of your own interruptibility is critical to productivity, and
managers should encourage their workers to do so.
The book notes that millennials want to be connected and think
they can multitask effectively, even when scientific studies show
that’s not the case. Meanwhile, you found that older people were
more distractible than younger adults and have more issues with
task switching and multitasking. Is there an argument for treating
the generations differently at the workplace?
ROSEN: Regardless of a person’s age, nobody multitasks all that
well, and making rules for different people due to age doesn’t make
any sense. On certain simpler tasks, younger people do quite well
multitasking, but they suffer similar prob-
lems when the tasks get more complex.
Research has found that only 2% of all
adults are “supertaskers” and can multitask
with few costs. Everyone suffers costs from
multitasking or being interrupted constantly, and this cuts across age groups.
How has your research changed your own
habits and your expectations of the people
ROSEN: One way my research has influ-
enced me personally is that when we
found a major impact of late-night tech-
nology use on sleep problems, I stopped
using my phone and tablet one hour
prior to bedtime. Instead, I “single task”
by watching TV — usually a familiar,
In terms of the people I manage — my students — I believe in
encouraging them to develop their own classroom digital metacog-
nition. I allow them to use devices in the classroom but first alert
them to the studies indicating that their learning will be dramatically
reduced and they will then have to spend time outside of class
catching up on what they missed while self-interrupting in class.
Comment on this article at http://sloanreview.mit.edu/x/58308 or via
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“Taking control of your own interruptibility is critical to
productivity, and managers should encourage their
workers to do so.”
; V.M. González and G. Mark,
“‘Constant, Constant, MultiTasking Craziness’: Managing
Multiple Working Spheres,”
Proceedings of CHI 2004, SIGCHI
Conference on Human Factors in
Computing Systems, Vienna,
Austria, April 24-29, 2004:
; G. Mark, D. Gudith, and U. Klocke,
“The Cost of Interrupted Work:
More Speed and Stress,” Proceedings of CHI 2008, SIGCHI
Conference on Human Factors in
Computing Systems, Florence,
Italy, April 5-10, 2008: 107-110.
; N. Medeiros-Ward, J.M. Watson,
and D.L. Strayer, “On Supertaskers and the Neural Basis of
Efficient Multitasking,” Psycho-nomic Bulletin & Review 22