Emails, social media and apps. They keep us connected to our friends and news events happening worldwide. They help us multitask in our ever-frenetic lives. However, they also provide an ongoing distraction from work commitments and family obligations — and it's only getting worse.
Gloria Mark, a researcher from the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, believes digital activity like text messages and social media notifications can significantly reduce our ability to focus on individual tasks, affecting performance at work, behavior and stress.
“In our digital age, we can communicate, access, create and share an abundance of information effortlessly, rapidly and nearly ubiquitously," she says. "The consequence of having so many choices is that they compete for our attention, so we’re continually switching our attention between different types of information while doing different types of tasks."
A decade-long report led by Mark on a group of American IT workers found that increasing social media usage corresponds with shrinking attention spans. In her experiment, Mark asked those surveyed to work and use applications from two computer screens. In 2004, the subjects switched their attention from one screen to the other on average every three minutes. The median time of retaining focus on one screen significantly dropped to one minute, 15 seconds by 2012. And in 2014, that average was 59.5 seconds. Mark concluded that the more time people spend switching screens — between pages like Facebook and Tumblr or checking notifications from games or apps — the less productive they feel at the end of the day.
Not just that: workers are also losing what is called "face-to-face interaction." This personal interaction in the workplace is being eroded by an “epidemic” of emails between employees. Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology and health at the University of Manchester, says that our continual checking of workplace emails — including after-hours — is interfering with our job productivity and family life.
“Although messages and especially emails are an important part of everybody’s working life, it may be hindering our productivity in a number of ways,” said Cooper. “First, because people in the same building are sending emails and reducing the real interaction, which undermines team building. Second, colleagues are cc’ing too many other colleagues on email and overloading them so that it prevents them from getting on with their work. And of course there also the personal emails and messages that we get all the time.”
Cooper believes that we need to switch off to recover from the constant pace of workload. “Employees need to spend time with their families and friends and not to be in ‘work mode’ all the time receiving stuff by their smartphones. It not only will become them less productive, but it’ll also damage their health and relationships,” he adds.
For Denis Gabos, expert in information technology and professor of technology at Senac University, in São Paulo, people simply need to start using it in a more conscious way. “You can, for example, adopt apps and tools that will really help you during the day, in your tasks — like agendas and spreadsheets," she says. "The use of social networks also must be done with awareness because they can really make us work in a disconnected way, without focus and purpose.”
Adds Macnamara: “For me, education is always a key to change and improvement. People need to be made aware of the dysfunctions, risks, and problems that arise from new technologies as much as the benefits.”
Tips: How to have a healthier relationship with your smartphone
If you’re busy, you don’t have to answer all messages now. Be conscious about it!
Before downloading an app, take a time to read about it. Sometimes, we just take some and they disturb more our routine than help us
Do not cc work colleagues on emails unless they are directly involved in it
Emails and messages about work don’t have to be send at night or at weekends,
unless they’re absolutely necessary
Use social media to maintain relationships, but focus on the importance of face to face