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Distractions: Does proximity impede productivity?

April 13, 2010

I came across an interview with Jason Fried of 37signals describing some of the problems with open-plan offices, and it got me thinking about workplace distractions.  I get why companies opt for open-plan – the idea is to foster communication and camaraderie, reduce overhead cost, take advantage of the declining need for physical space, and keep people on task based on the fear that others are watching (the Panopticon Effect).  On the flip side, added interruptions and little frustrations are more likely to grate on people’s nerves –

Open-plan and traditional setup are just two arrangements.  The trend toward telecommuting adds another variant to the mix.  Inc. Magazine conducted an experiment recently where the editors, writers, and designers created an entire issue working from home.  In the end, one of the biggest critics of the idea came around to become a supporter, and others who loved the idea initially changed their minds and missed the daily routine of the office.  It seems that the office environment served to focus people around common goals and tasks.  While the idea of working from home is appealing, it offers up a different set of roadblocks to being productive.  We’re working distracted either way, so pick your poison.

David Meyer, an expert on multitasking, argues in a New York Magazine article that we can only truly multitask when using separate channels in the brain.  For example, playing chess while listening to an iPod is closer to true multitasking because one task is visual while the other is auditory.  This explains why driving and texting, two visual-manual tasks, causes so many wrecks.  Linda Stone coined the phrase Continuous Partial Attention for the rapid channel switching that we mistakenly call multitasking.  Despite how well we think we juggle, we lose a little bit of mental efficiency with each switch.  That said, interruptions aren’t always a bad thing.  People tend to work in surges rather than at a steady pace.  While scattered focus can hurt your productivity, you can also over-focus to the point that you get stuck.  I find this is the case in writing, where I often write a draft version and come back later so I can read what I’ve written with fresh eyes.

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