Multitasking: How do You Manage Your Interrupt-Driven Work?

By Jenny Englert, Sr. Cognitive Engineer, Xerox Innovation Group

These days, many knowledge workers find that multitasking is a requirement for getting their jobs done.  However, studies indicate that multitasking adversely affects task performance.  One UCLA study found that multitasking adversely affects the brain’s learning systems and another study from Stanford University found that multitasking muddles the brain even when the computer is off.

Despite all that, multitasking has become a way of life for many people.  This infographic from Rasmussen College shows that people are spending more time engaged with media over time.  In 2009, people spent an average of 10 hours and 47 minutes interacting with media.  Plus the amount of time people spend with multiple forms of media has increased steadily.woman multitasking at her office computer

The Xerox Future of Work Team saw a lot of multitasking during our study of knowledge workers.  Mobile participants tended to have all of their mobile devices open at once, with each one displaying different information.  When they were sitting in a static location, participants did their main work on their PC, and kept their tablet open next to the PC showing their email.  They also kept their smartphones on the table for quick internet reference, texting, or phone calls.

With all of this media open and displaying disparate information, mobile knowledge work has become interrupt-driven.  Rather than focusing on one main task, a knowledge worker’s attention becomes driven by the alerts and information pushed to them through their multiple devices.  When new information arrives, they must interrupt their current task to attend to the new information long enough to determine whether their tasks must be re-prioritized.  In one case, if a knowledge worker receives an alert from her smartphone as she is working on a report, she must interrupt her work to attend to the alert.  If the alert happens to be an email from her boss , asking her to create a last minute slide for an upcoming meeting, she will need to re-prioritize her work, and switch tasks until this new slide is finished.

Our study found that some knowledge workers develop strategies to manage this process of ad hoc re-prioritization throughout the day.  One participant made text messages from an important person audible.  This way, he could hear the content of the message while he worked on something else.  If the content warranted re-prioritization, he could do this. Otherwise, he did not have to fully interrupt his work.

Participants also developed strategies for managing how or if they interrupted their colleagues depending on whether they had a high priority message.  One participant only sent low-priority messages by email because he did not want to interrupt his colleagues with texts.  Another participant sent texts when he had a high priority message because he knew his colleagues would attend to the text when they received it.

Several software applications have begun to develop features that support the interrupt-drive nature of knowledge work.  Applications like Firefox and iBooks save work in the state in which it was left.  iBooks saves the place where the user left off, and Firefox saves the tabs that are open when the user leaves the application. This way, when work is interrupted, it is easier to come back to the work and quickly re-orient to the place where the worker left off.

Does any of this sound familiar?  Have you developed strategies for managing interruptions, or for reorienting to work once it has been interrupted?  If so, we’d love to hear from you!

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One Comment

  1. leah quesada May 17, 2012 - Reply

    Just because more people multi-task, does not make the multi-tasking the right thing to do. The tendency to multi-task is a default reaction. A clearer, more focused mind focuses on the present task and has enough discipline to realize the relative importance of any interruptions. Any attended interruption also has a “swtiching cost” that fatigues the brain and reduces productivity. So, focus!
    (Xerox employee)

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