pen rainbow

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sunday—Have An Uninterrupted Week!

Measuring the effect of distractions and interruptions

Can you hear me now?

I've always said that interruptions drive me crazy.  As it turns out, they also make me dumber.  If dumber means more pissed off, then I'm on board.

Research from Carnegie Mellon University's Human-Computer Interaction Institute suggests that interruptions dumb us down.  The irony here is that linking to the HCII website presents you with at least 8 shiny things flying around the room...OOo, a projector that makes anything into a remote control!  Oh, there goes a zooming technique for entering text into smart watches!  And, look at that article on touch-based interfaces on everyday surfaces.  I'll bet that's interesting...Look, there's a big pretty rainbowy gadget with a circuit board thingy on top!  What IS that?  Wait...what am I looking for again?

Research!  Right, right...Where's the research cited in the New York Times article that got me started on this in the first place (Brain, Interrupted—Buzz, DingDing, Rrring! by Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson, 3 May 2013)?  Back to finding the HCII research.  Okay, I'll ignore the 3 articles in The Atlantic, Mashable, and Huffington Post about self-censorship on Facebook.  I would probably be interested in that topic because of my long-standing belief that people share way too much on facebook.  It is deceptive technology that is designed to trick users into submitting information about themselves.  Good for business, bad for humanity.  Hmm, there's a drop-down menu at the top of the HCII site.  Let's try...Research Projects.

::::Errrrr...ummm:::::  WTF.  Which of the 53 research projects listed here is the one I want?  Damnit,  do I really have to sift through all of these titles to figure out which one is about how interruptions make me dumber?  Gaaawwwwwd!  Fine, I'm getting more pissed off as I sort by research it Learning Sciences and Technologies or Social Computing?

::::Durrrrr::::  Still scrolling past stuff that sounds like it probably isn't it what I want—starting with the A's.  ACT-R...nope.  Assistment Project..."assistment?"  I've never heard of this word.  My husband made up the word, assisthole, as in "Don't be such an assisthole!"  It's self-explanatory.

I don't know what assistment is.  It's like "satisficer," another word I'd never heard of until I wrote a blog post about a topic that now eludes me.  Something about generations or adult kids moving back in with their parents.  Whatever it was, it was important.

What am I looking for?  Oh yeah, a research project that has to do with interruptions and/or distractions.  I know it's here because the very fine journalists at the New York Times would not have linked to it if it hadn't been relevant to their article on interruptions.

::::Blurrrrpppp::::  Complex Collaboration?  Coordinating Attention and Communication?  That sounds like it might be getting close.

Dynamic Support for Computer-Mediated Intercultural Communication?  Jezus, back when I was teaching HyperCard to my son's First Grade class, we had a little kid named Gaku who had just moved to the Bay Area from Japan.  Whenever things didn't go his way, he used to beat on his Apple II with both fists and scream, "I DONNO!  I DONNO!"  We could have used some dynamic support back then instead of letting this poor kid spit all over the computer lab every day.

Leveraging Human Knowledge to Improve Learning?  Nope, I don't think so, although I would like to do that for all mankind.  Okie-dokie...still looking...something about a "haptic environment," no idea what THAT is, but it caught my eye because it has "magnetic levitation" in the title.  Keep going...

Metacognition and Motivation... I could use some of that.  Pebbles reminds me of The Flintstones and breakfast cereal.  Project on People and Robots...Nerp.  Alright, I'm approaching babbling idiot status here.  Where's the effing paper on INTERRUPTIONS?

Sonic Flashlight... must read that.  Wearable Computers... also, probably a very interesting paper.  ::::Bbbbbb::::  Back to Page 1!

Let's try the one about coordinating attention and commuication...

A call during dinner?  While one party may value the conversation, the receiver thinks it is an interruption.  This project examines the conditions under which communication is valuble or disruptive and the social, economic and technological interventions that can ease conflict between potential parties to a conversation.

Nope.  Close, but no banana.  Besides, there are no links to the papers, so even if it were the right research, I wouldn't have access to it from the HCII website.  Fine.  Moving on to pre-dinner heartburn.

So, where was I?  Let's go back to the NYT article because it is right here on my screen.  The authors asked a couple of the Carnegie Mellon guys (Professor Alessandro Acquisti, Information Technology, and psychologist, Eyal Peer) to design an experiment that could measure the loss of brain power resulting from constant, annoying, crazy-making interruptions.  (I added "constant, annoying," and "crazy-making" based on my own experience.)

136 subjects were put into a lab (substitute my house for the lab and me as a subject) and asked to read a short passsage, then answer questions about it.  Of the three test groups, the control group was simply asked to complete a standard cognitive skills test.  The other two groups were also asked to complete the skills test, but were also told that they might be contacted for further instructions at random times via IM.

During the first round, the second and third groups were interrupted twice.  During Round 2, only the second group was interrupted, while the third group expected to be interrupted, but never was.

The initial results are actually far worse than you might expect.  After Round 1, both of the interrupted groups were 20 percent less correct in answering questions than those in the control group.  The interruptions combined with the expectation of interruptions effectively dumbed down both groups by 20 percent.  On days when you need to operate at peak efficiency, 20 percent is a big chunk of brain power.

The results of Round 2 were more promising.  This time, those in the interrupted group raised their correct answers to 14 percent, an improvement of 6 percent, indicating that people can and do adapt quickly to interruptions and then develop ways to compensate.

Here's the big surprise:  Those in the expected-but-never-interrupted group improved by 43 percent, even surpassing the score of the completely uninterrupted control group.  So, what that tells us is that the expectation of being interrupted has the effect of intensifying concentration and producing stellar results.  It explains why some people work well under a deadline, as long as there are no interruptions.

I'm reserving judgement on multitaskers because I think that there are some people who are very good at it.  On a good day, I can multitask several things at a time all day long, and I use interruptions as transitions from one activity to the next.  At the end of the day, I get it all done, even with unexpected interruptions.

Clearly, uninterrupted time is going to produce better results.  And, better results make us feel better—whether it's finishing a project, cleaning out a drawer, meal planning, sweeping the sidewalk, gardening, or being fully engaged in a conversation.

Give yourself an hour of uninterrupted time this week to do whatever you want.  Consider it a gift to yourself!

Have a relaxing & healthy week!