Multitasking Drives Workers to Distraction

Think of all the digital gadgets we use to keep in touch -- from cell phones and BlackBerrys to computers. When they summon us they all demand we stop, switch gears and respond -- anytime, anywhere.

"Frazzing," short for frantic multitasking, is the name given to the toll this mental channel switching takes on our productivity. The term was coined by Massachusetts psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, and the phenomenon it describes is costing us.

"It's a very tough tightrope to balance oneself on," said Jonathan Spira, CEO of a technology consulting firm called Basex. "Everything could be the next important emergency that needs to be taken care of."

"There's plenty of technology. There's way too much technology, in our opinion, and certainly too much complexity in technology," said David Rose, president of the technology company Ambient Devices Inc.

A study of office workers found that they were interrupted, on average, once every 10 and a half minutes. And then it takes them 23 minutes to get back to their original task.

Jeffrey Frumin is a marketing consultant in New York who knows all about multitasking.

"I would say simultaneously I would have three things going at once," he said. "I'm on the phone, I'm instant messaging, and reading and responding to e-mails," he said.

But he says he has no choice; if he's not frazzing, he might miss something important. "I get a lot of times people saying, 'Jeff! Focus!'"

Productivity Losses Mount Up

According to a report from Basex, the average "knowledge worker" -- someone who is part of the growing information economy -- loses 2.1 hours a day to interruptions. If those workers make an average of $21 an hour, that adds up to $588 billion a year -- more than the gross domestic product of Argentina.

"If I didn't multitask, it would be a very, very long day," said Heather Dubuque, a client relations manager in New York.

Is there a solution for this overload? Some companies, such as Microsoft, want to create a form of artificial intelligence. Someday, perhaps, your computer could recognize that you've been working on one memo for an hour and filter out unrelated e-mails.

Other companies, such as Ambient Devices, say keep it simple. You shouldn't have to open your e-mail whenever an icon pops up on your screen. A glance should tell if the new message is important to you, much the way you glance at a clock.

"The scarce resource that's out there is people's attention," said Rose. "The real goal is to simplify the way that people interact with technology."

Frumin, meanwhile, says he's used to frazzing. But every day, he writes a to-do list on old fashioned paper, just so he can concentrate.