650 billion (not million) in Interruptions

An interesting article in the New York Times entitled”Lost in Email, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast.”

Their effort comes as statistical and anecdotal evidence mounts that the same technology tools that have led to improvements in productivity can be counterproductive if overused.

The article describes one study that shows that some 28% of a professional’s day is spent deal with interruptions by things that aren’t urgent or important.

This seems all well and good… until they give the example of “unnecessary email.”

That made me pay attention, because I know from experience that the problem isn’t the technology, but instead it lies in people’s habits. In others, don’t blame Microsoft Outlook for the habit of checking and acting on email ten times per day.

Not surprisingly, the article cited the example of Intel workers who were encouraged to “limit digital interruptions” and were way more effective as a result. No surprise there! Limiting the interruptions allows for a greater opportunity to enter into the flow state, which is one of the goals of the 2Time Management system.

On engineer has apparently introduced a tool that will prevent a user from having access to his/her email inbox! I thought this was funny at first, because it’s a little like freezing one’s credit cards in a block of ice to prevent impulse purchases. It works, but it doesn’t really change the underlying habit.

The effect of poor habits is now being seen as quite costly:

A typical information worker who sits at a computer all day turns to his e-mail program more than 50 times and uses instant messaging 77 times, according to one measure by RescueTime, a company that analyzes computer habits. The company, which draws its data from 40,000 people who have tracking software on their computers, found that on average the worker also stops at 40 Web sites over the course of the day.


Right at the end of the article a typo caught my attention that stopped me in my tracks altogether…

Correction: June 18, 2008
An article on Saturday about efforts to cut down on information overload in the workplace, using data from the research firm Basex, gave an incorrect estimate in some editions for the annual cost of unnecessary interruptions at work. It is $650 billion — not million.

Can You Become a Creature of New Habits?

rewire.jpgI was a bit startled to see the New York Times article by the above title, as I had just finished leading a 2-day program in Trinidad called “NewHabits-NewGoals.”

(It uses the 2Time principles to help people build their own time management systems.)

The author, Janet Rae-Dupree, shares the discovery that habits can be used as the pathway to creativity, and are far more than the bad things that we spend so much time to get rid of.

She says “Rather than dismissing ourselves as unchangeable creatures of habit, we can instead direct our own change by consciously developing new habits. In fact, the more new things we try — the more we step outside our comfort zone — the more inherently creative we become, both in the workplace and in our personal lives.” This is very good news for those of us who are in the process of crafting our own time management systems.

She also reports that it’s better to focus on creating new habits, than on trying to kill off old ones.

“But don’t bother trying to kill off old habits; once those ruts of procedure are worn into the hippocampus, they’re there to stay. Instead, the new habits we deliberately ingrain into ourselves create parallel pathways that can bypass those old roads.”

That reaffirms much of the 2Time approach, which is largely based on the idea that new habits or practices are the key to increasing productivity. When people complain about their habit of procrastination, for example, it’s a better idea for them to focus on developing new habits, than to try to stop procrastinating.

She also points out some research done by M.J. Ryan and Dawna Markova:

“Ms. Ryan and Ms. Markova have found what they call three zones of existence: comfort, stretch and stress. Comfort is the realm of existing habit. Stress occurs when a challenge is so far beyond current experience as to be overwhelming. It’s that stretch zone in the middle — activities that feel a bit awkward and unfamiliar — where true change occurs.”

“Getting into the stretch zone is good for you,” Ms. Ryan says in “This Year I Will… .” “It helps keep your brain healthy. It turns out that unless we continue to learn new things, which challenges our brains to create new pathways, they literally begin to atrophy, which may result in dementia, Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases.”

Wow — it sounds like they are saying that a focus on creating and refining a time management system could ward off senility!! LOL

As a 42-year old, I have enough mad days to make me hope that this is true!

One a more serious note, they perfectly capture the middle ground that I have wanted the belt system to embody. Most time management systems that I have observed are presented in all or nothing terms. In the experience of the user, they either produce comfort (I already know this stuff) or stress (all this new stuff is overwhelming.) In adding in a belt system to 2Time, my hope was that each user would find their own “stretch” point, and be able to pick a set of habits to focus on that would carry them to the next belt level (if they desired,) at a pace that kept them engaged.

The researchers link this engagement to a commitment to achieving improvements in small steps, and she uses the Japanese concept of kaizen, which simply means small, continuous improvements. It’s one of the cornerstones of the Toyota Production System, and other manufacturing techniques that they have been using so effectively. (As an industrial engineer, this concept became part of my bread and butter at a young age.)

“Whenever we initiate change, even a positive one, we activate fear in our emotional brain,” Ms. Ryan notes in her book. “If the fear is big enough, the fight-or-flight response will go off and we’ll run from what we’re trying to do. The small steps in kaizen don’t set off fight or flight, but rather keep us in the thinking brain, where we have access to our creativity and playfulness.”

That’s just the reaction that I hope users experience when they use the belt system for the first time — a way to take control of small, incremental improvements, with only hints of direction from the 2Time system itself. Once these improvements are practiced long enough, an interesting thing happens in the brain.

“After the churn of confusion, she says, the brain begins organizing the new input, ultimately creating new synaptic connections if the process is repeated enough.”

Well, I can’t say that ever intended to be part of the great rewiring or the twenty-first century brain, but I do hope this happens, if only in small ways.

The Original New York Times article can be found by clicking here.