Working Smarter

The Brain and Productivity Drain of Unbounded Devices, Interruptions, and Information Overload

Posted by Joe Robinson


DESPITE A FLOOD of technology investment in the workplace in recent years, productivity gains are at their lowest since 1982. Economists are scratching their heads, trying to figure out why. In the past, technology improvements were followed by big productivity gains. Why not this time? A lot of us under the thumb of 24/7 technology know the answer to that one. 

Digital overload. Too much technology has swamped the human capacity to deal with it. Instead of helping us get our jobs done, it’s making our work harder and longer. 


It’s on display every time I conduct a work-life balance, stress management, or time management training, which I did last week at the Supply Chain Leaders in Action conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. Executives from Pepsi to Starbucks to Microsoft told me they were drowning in messaging and digital interruptions to the point they can’t keep up with it all and feel like they’re constantly falling behind.

One executive told me he feels a semblance of control if he can get his email box down to 200. A couple people in the training were getting more than 300 messages a day. That means doing email at home to catch up, which drives exhaustion, crowds out recovery options, and grinds down performance.

Technology is helpful when humans are in charge of it. Most of the time these days, we’re not. We’re at the mercy of unbounded in-boxes, information overload, and distractions. 

How many of you have been known to sleep with your significant other who’s not your partner? Your smartphone. Based on my experiences, it’s well more than a few.

We have lost one of the most basic management tools: boundaries. The devices are running us, instead of the other way around. As a result, most people are in retaliatory mode all day, reacting to what’s coming at them—acting before they think. That drives time frenzy, crisis mentality, overwhelm, and poor time management, not to mention bad performance, because our chief productivity tool, attention, is under assault.


What we don’t understand about digital devices is that they are supposed to work for us, to help us, not barrage our working memory and survival equipment all day. We're supposed to be in charge.

All the bongs, chirps, chimes, and pulses play to what’s known as bottom-up attention. That’s what happens when you hear a loud noise. Your attention immediately shifts from whatever you were focused on to see what the threat is. It sets off the startle response, a stressor, interruptor, and all-around saboteur of working memory.

Intel estimated the cost of lost productivity per year due to email overload at $1 billion for a company with 50,000 workers. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can put humans back in charge with a set of rules and guidelines that rein in the abuse.

A solution is long overdue. Gloria Mark at the University of California at Irvine says that 10 years ago, we used to shift between work spheres—online to offline and back again—every three minutes. Now it’s every 45 seconds. Her research shows that it takes an average of up to 25 minutes after answering an email for someone to get back to what they were doing before the interruption. We open a browser, talk to a colleague, and self-distract after an interruption.


Interruptions throw us seriously off track. They do that by blowing up working memory, that fragile collection of germinal thoughts that we can hang on to for only a few seconds and that is at the heart of self-discipline and concentration. Research has shown that interruptions can slow us down by up to 27% and make everything we do seem more difficult than it is.

Interruptions can lower IQ up to 10 points. This is why we make suspect decisions under the influence of distractions.

Multitasking, which is really a misnomer (you can’t do two high cognitive tasks at one time), reduces productivity more than 40%, from all the switching back and forth that brain neurons have to do, according to research at the University of Michigan. And, of course, there are all the mistakes that come from multitasking, or what it really should be called—simultaneous inattention.

The problem is worse than we think, since we don’t understand the impact that unbounded devices and interruptions are having on our brains and self-regulatory equipment. Interruptions erode impulse control. The more you check email, the more you have to check it.

We are losing ability to regulate impulsivity. Without self-regulation, the discipline needed to avoid temptation and be able to focus, we’re backsliding into addictive behavior. As Gayle Porter at Rutgers found in her research, technology is as addicting as any substance.


In a poll at my Scottsdale training, the biggest distraction and time sink was email, which is growing at a rate of 25% a year. The volume is not sustainable. Every email results in six emails, three going, three coming back, as we try to tease out what someone is saying and find a polite way to exit the conversation. The good news is that we can do something about email, interruptions, and multitasking. We can create boundaries, rules of the digital road that restore control. 

For instance, we can create manual checking schedules, which researchers have documented increase productivity and reduce chaos. We can make sure everyone knows that if something is an emergency, then that requires a phone call. This way people don't have to be checking email every five minutes for fear of missing an emergency.

Does your organization have an email or interruption management strategy? Our programs provide the tools to get the deluge under control, including an Email Etiquette Guidebook and Interruption Norms Rulebook.

Most organizations today are operating without norms and standards, which leads to digital abuse and triage mode all day.

Our productivity and time management training give your team the best practices vetted by the research to keep the productivity killer of unbounded technology at bay. When we develop new practices and norms and address bottlenecks, the chaos and stress ends, minds and working memory refocus, and more work gets done in less time.

Learn how to rein in information overload for your team. Click the button below for details on how our Work-Life Balance and Managing Crazy Busy Work time management trainings can make your organization less crazed and more effective.

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Tags: email overload, overwhelm, productivity programs, feeling overwhelmed, information overload, time management programs

Work-Life Is Attention Management

Posted by Joe Robinson


As I'm sure you have noticed, the mind has a mind of its own. It nags, frets, and guilts with a steady stream of thoughts that get in the way of things we are trying to do. It would be nice if it could just clam up for a while, especially with the badgering about things on our to-do list.

A study at Florida State University (Masicampo, Baumeister) found that worries about unfinished business distract attention, reducing performance in the process. Trying to do a task with an unfinished one hanging over your head hinders performance by flooding short-term memory with anxious thoughts. The fragile state of working memory—three or four thought chunks we can hold onto for only a few seconds at a time—is easy prey for worries that intrude from the unhandled realm.


It turns out that not handling things is a danger signal for a brain on the lookout for things that are wrong—and that thinks it’s the year 100,000 BC. The warning sign means we are not in control, not handling something, which in turn means that something has overloaded capacity to cope. That is the on-button for anxiety and the stress response.

To stay focused, we need to persuade the alarmist brain that things are being handled. That’s what good time management and work-life balance do. They shut down the nattering brain through prioritizing, planning, and adjustments to schedules that allow people to feel they are managing both sides of the work-life hyphen. As soon as the hectoring brain feels things are being handled, it lets up, say researchers. It doesn’t have to respond to the errant “something wrong,” “out of control” messages anymore.

Get "5 Strategies to Manage  Crazy-Busy Workload"     

The key to silencing the to-do nag is to get the item out of your head and physically in the world, on paper or a screen. You write down your next physical action, whatever that may be—picking up a phone, grabbing a pen, speaking with someone, and noting when you’re going to do the item. That lets your brain know you are on the case, and it stops pestering.


The same thing applies to really big projects you have yet to start that may be bugging you. The longer you procrastinate, the longer the mind will badger, but if you do something, anything to get started on the project, all of a sudden, the looming dread fades, and the brain releases its alarm button. Spend 30 minutes to get a big assignment started, and just the time spent thinking and semi-organizing it takes the pressure off. Break the task into micro-bits, say 30 minutes a day, and you can chip away at it. Better yet, the project that would not let up its drumbeat feels under control.

I call it the “base camp” approach. Legendary mountain climber, Ed Viesturs, the first American to summit all 14 of the world 8000 meter- peaks, told me he doesn’t look at the mountaintop when he starts his climb. Too overwhelming. Instead, he focuses on just getting to the base camp for the day.

It’s a methodical approach we can use every day. One step in front of the other, by learning how to prioritize, to separate the urgent from the important, by not falling for time panic that aggravates the angst of the undone, and keeping our focus on the day's base camp.


My work-life balance programs take the concept of clarifying attention to the macro scale, building in adjustments to demands, devices, and distractions, and giving people flexibility in areas that allow them to feel they are able to handle both work and home responsibilities.

I hear from parents a lot that they feel guilty when they are at work and not taking care of their kids and guilty at home when they’re not at work getting more done. Flexibility in start times or a day or two a week of telework can make a big difference in creating a sense that both sides of the balance ledger are better controlled. The mind lets go of the chastising, and you are able to focus on the task at hand without the intrusion of untaken care of issues.

We all have a job we have to do, but how we do it is where we can build in the flexibility that allows for more effective work practices, ones that can reduce strain and the static of unhandled business. In my work-life balance training programs we drill down to the task practices and bottlenecks that make work and life difficult and build in the adjustments researchers have documented are much more effective.

In a world where attention is under siege, we forget that it is our chief productivity tool. Anything that is blowing up working memory and concentration is undermining productivity and the bottom-line. That may be why people who report good work-life balance are 21% more productive than their colleagues, according to a survey by the Corporate Executive Board, which represents 80% of Fortune 500 companies. 

Making it as easy as possible for minds to work unfettered by mental sidetracking and thoughts of overwhelm should be the goal of every team and organization. When minds are waylaid by the strain of the unhandled, attention isn’t just disrupted, it’s also replaced by the addled and frantic decisions of the caveman/woman brain that takes the wheel when capacity to cope is overloaded.

As they say, a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Work-life balance and time management strategies are your insurance plan for attention management.

If you would like to learn more about our work-life balance or time management training programs, including "Managing Crazy-Busy Workload," click the button below for more details.

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Tags: work life balance, time management programs, attention and productivity, working memory, atterntion management, stress and working memory

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