We’re on alert overload. Stray comments and offhand requests once shouted across the office now blink and buzz at us from Microsoft Teams and Slack. Our communication has grown fragmented, spread across myriad apps we have to learn, conform to, remember to check.
Meanwhile, personal texts and social-media mentions have bled into the workday after all this time at home, adding another layer of distraction to our time on the clock. Why put your phone on silent if the boss isn’t hovering over you? Our culture has evolved to accommodate rapid communication, says Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, and it can be mentally taxing. Many of us struggle to conjure up that brilliant thought that hit right before the notification burst in. “Your memory is just overflowing with information,” she says.
It doesn’t make for great circumstances for getting work done, but there are ways individuals, managers and organizations can contend with the onslaught. Dr. Mark’s research finds people switch screens an average of 566 times a day. Half the time we’re interrupted; the other half we pull ourselves away. Breaks — even mindless ones like scrolling Facebook — can be positive, replenishing our cognitive resources, Dr. Mark says. But when something external diverts our focus, it takes us an average of 25 minutes and 26 seconds to get back to our original task, she has found. (Folks often switch to different projects in between.) And it stresses us out. Research using heart monitors shows that the interval between people’s heart beats becomes more regular when they’re interrupted, a sign they’re in fight-or-flight mode. The onus is on teams and organizations to create new norms, Dr. Mark says. If individuals just up and turn off their notifications they’ll likely be penalized for missing information. Instead, managers should create quiet hours where people aren’t expected to respond. “It’s a matter of relearning how to work,” she says.