The Duh Factor: Email, Distractions, and Workers

June 15, 2008

When I awakened at 6 30 am, I took a look at what my crawlers snagged as I slept. Email stories. Hundreds of email stories. You can sample the floods on,, and other aggregation services. The catalyst for this blog-astrophy appears to be this essay by Matt Richtel of the New York Times. I’m not sure you need a link in this Web log because this story has gone viral. Email, distraction, and digital addiction are, in my view, part of the furniture of living. These behaviors will be with us for some time.

Now, let me summarize “Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast.” Email is a problem. Workers, companies, and any one else in the message flow spends time fiddling around. Wasted time means an expensive, often futile, experience.

Some of the pundits commenting on this essay by Mr. Richtel has made the leap to distractions of which email is one in the modern work space. You can sample this line of thought in the Business Week article “May We Have Your Attention, Please?” by Maggie Jackson.

More, Not Fewer, Messages

I have a different view of the email problem, and I am not sure what to make of the furor over any digital messaging.

First, we have more types of electronic messaging that are exponentiating the cost and attention problems and their costs in money and time. SMS, for example, adds to the message traffic. When BearStearns used to be in business, my client sent me SMS messages, and these to him were must-answer communications. Email was too slow. SMS traffic I learned in one of my studies is larger than email traffic. I don’t have the motivation to dig out the 2007 data I have but I recall being flabbergasted at the number of SMS fired off and the revenue these generate for telcos.

Second, we now must deal with micro blogging., the Silicon Valley in crowd communication medium, allows one to broadcast information of great import to anyone interested in receiving a friend’s postings. Here’s “tweet” I cadged from, a service which presents random tweets:

YoungnRich Apparel california. @holli I nap every Saturday there [sic] so rejuvenating

Very helpful this post, Holli.

Third, the notion of “soft interruptions” just adds to the flow of message traffic. Toss in instant messaging–a form of information that pops up–that runs across networks. I dislike instant anything, but that’s my 64-year-old biases coming to the fore.

Stepping Back

Distraction is a fact of life. When I leave my log cabin in rural Kentucky and venture to the big city, I find myself in meetings. One experience I had in Seattle in the last month is illustrative of the situations I encounter.

I am giving a talk about a company’s technology. I don’t work for the company whose technology I am describing. I don’t even care if it works or not. I’m describing what this company says its technology will do. There are five people in the room. Each has a laptop with a wireless connection, a smartphone, and a beverage. A person rushes into the room with a laptop, smartphone, and dog. The late comer is the “boss” and he says, “That diagram is wrong. That technology will never work.” He then sits down, attends to his laptop, and sends one message on his smartphone. He then interrupts and asserts, “That device can’t perform that function. It doesn’t have two radios. Quit telling us about that function. It won’t work.”

I’ m not sure what to do, so I say, “No problem. I go on to another slide.” A short time later the “boss” leaves. After the presentation, the other attendees wander off.

This situation is representative of what I find in my work.

  • Many employees who are bright and confident in their ability to multi task. I find that humans who multi task may be operating at less than 100 percent efficiency, not the 100 percent plus that these folks think their doing two tasks at a time delivers. This old human does not multi task. I do one thing at a time. In fact, I have to work to keep my mind from wandering. Many of the people I encounter actively embrace wandering thoughts.
  • Over the years, I have found that people in knowledge jobs go to great lengths to appear busy, engaged, and in demand. At Booz, Allen & Hamilton in the late 1970s, the fellow who trained me–Dr. William P. Sommers–appeared calm and unhurried. It was a false front. He was busy, but he managed his time effectively and separated himself from the lesser beings at Booz, Allen because he was under control. Today, the appearance of busy-ness is highly valued. Intrusive crap is embraced because it connotes success.
  • The devices are fun for many people. I find small gadgets, including mini-notebook computers, maddening. I can’t see the screen. The keyboard is too small for my large, increasingly clumsy fingers. The gizmos are fragile, and I drop small slippery gadgets with great frequency. Younger folks enjoy the complexity and some watch videos on screens the size of match books. My hunch is that these professionals are playing with toys. Instead of Lego blocks, professionals today keep their childhood habits alive with digital play things.
  • Most professionals I encounter don’t know what the heck they are doing. Their expertise often lacks a broader business context. Reinventing the wheel is a popular pass time in many of the high-tech environments in which I find myself. The interest in mobile search is somehow new. Nope, like metatagging, it is the same old stuff gussied up with a new name. If you don’t know what to do to make a direct and immediate contribution in your work, humans generate fake smoke. The blue flickers on digital gizmos are the equivalent of laser light shows for a touring rock band’s stage dressing. Distraction is a bit of fakery.

You probably disagree with my take on this email discussion. My reaction is like the Cheers’ character who says, “Duh.” As professionals more cut off from meaningful work, distractions become more attractive. I can gauge the focus of a meeting by counting the number of laptops and smartphones in the room. When there are more gizmos than people, I know the company is in a management whirlpool. In one meeting, I had an audiences of 62 people. There were 109 devices. This company, if I were to name it, is one the media, investors, and customers believes is in a death spiral.

So, as the economy falters, the pressure on employees goes up. If the employee doesn’t have a clue about managing time and setting priorities, the distractions flow. Forget how many emails pile up. When I return from a trip out side the US, I winnow emails ruthlessly. I don’t waste time on email. If a person wants me to do something, there are ways to get my attention. One young consultant at an Internet research firm wrote me to participate in a survey. I wrote back, “No. I will now delete email from you and your company automatically.” End of problem from my point of view.

Distractions, therefore, provide a way to measure the intellectual and managerial skill of a worker. The best employees and colleagues know how to manage distractions. I like to think about Alexander, sitting in a stinking tent, somewhere east of modern Afghanistan and his ability to manage distractions. I can imagine his hearing, “The troops don’t have water” and “We don’t know where the enemy is” and “We don’t have enough fodder for the pack animals”. A New York Times writer observing this situation could easily report that Alexander is overwhelmed by yammering requires from his lieutenants, too many parchment or wax messages, and intrusions such as a raiding party intent on killing him. Alexander dealt reasonably well with distractions.

Is it possible that these squawks, cheeps, howls, and tweets about “the email problem” reveal the flaws of the individuals, not the problems of the messaging environment. Agree? Disagree? Let me know if you are not too distracted.

Update. Times of London introduces the notion of a “pond-skater mind” here. The fix may be to use other tools.

Stephen Arnold, June 15, 2008

Update 1: June 23, 2008 You may find “The Myth of Multitasking” by Christine Rosen germane. Writing in The New Atlantis, she summarizes the challenges of mutli tasking. I particularly liked her use of the phrase “acquired inattention”. You can read the full essay here. Highly recommended.

Update 2; June 24, 2008 Ars Technica has a useful essay about multi tasking. J.M. Gitlin’s “The Boss Made Me Do It” is here.


2 Responses to “The Duh Factor: Email, Distractions, and Workers”

  1. Pat on July 2nd, 2008 4:22 pm

    I remembered when ‘multitalking’ first came on the scene. Companies wanted candidates to speak that language…then at the same time the same companies were complaining that employees didn’t have the basic work skills. An individual can’t give the same attention to two things at the same time. When I interview candidates I’m not impressed when they indicate they can multitask. Rather, I’m more interested in their presentation of the quality work they have performed in the past and how they did it.

  2. Stephen E. Arnold on July 2nd, 2008 10:05 pm

    Pat, thanks for posting. I appreciate your taking time to comment.

    Stephen Arnold, July 3, 2008

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