May We Have Your Attention, Please?

Business Week

With the workplace ever more full of distractions,
researchers are developing tools to keep us on task

It’s official: The average knowledge worker has the attention span of a sparrow. Roughly once every three minutes, typical cubicle dwellers set aside whatever they’re doing and start something else—anything else. It could be answering the phone, checking e-mail, responding to an instant message, clicking over to YouTube (GOOG), or posting something amusing on Facebook. Constant interruptions are the Achilles’ heel of the information economy in the U.S. These distractions consume as much as 28% of the average U.S. worker’s day, including recovery time, and sap productivity to the tune of $650 billion a year, according to Basex, a business research company in New York City.

Soon, however, the same kinds of social networking software and communications technologies that make it deliciously easy to lose concentration may start steering us back to the tasks at hand. Scientists at U.S. research labs are developing tools to help people prioritize the flood of information they face and fend off irrelevant info-bytes. New modes of e-mail and phone messaging can wait patiently for an opportune time to interrupt. One program allows senders to “whisper” something urgent via a pop-up on a screen.

Innovations like these belong to a sub-branch of computer science that’s geekily called “attentional user interfaces.” The goal, says Scott E. Hudson, a professor in this discipline at Carnegie Mellon University, is finding a way to reap benefits from the data deluge “without having it destroy us on the attention side.”

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