Pardon the Interruption

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One reason telemarketers are so effective is that their contacts produce an immediate response: Just like Pavlov’s dogs, most people respond instantly to the ring of the telephone and dash to pick it up before the answering machine kicks in. A cell phone is a telemarketer’s dream: Whether you’re relaxing on vacation in Hawaii or waiting nervously with a sick child in the emergency room, your cell phone makes you instantly available to hear a marketing pitch for herbal remedies or usurious credit cards.

Such telephone interruptions come at a cost to you: loss of focus. I refer you to Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, a classic book by Tom deMarco and Timothy Lister, who, during several decades, measured how the internal culture of companies affected the productivity of their software programmers. An interesting discovery was the cost of interruptions, not just to the work at hand, but to the ability of programmers to work at all. They found it takes 15 minutes to enter effectively into a state of flow to write software. At companies where software programmers had to suffer interruptions  (coworkers, managers, telephone calls, meetings), productivity was often 10 times lower than the productivity at other companies.

The new book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, by Winifred Gallagher, is a recent bit of science journalism research that makes the same point. DeMarco and Lister wrote their book in 1987, the days before “multitasking” was a popular noun. Some might think today’s generation of multitasking young adults can work on several projects at once. Research shows this is, in fact, an illusion. Multitaskers switch their attention from task to task in linear fashion, each task switch requires a focus switch, and each focus switch continues to carry costs. A multitasker does not display the productivity or creativity of someone with focused attention.

Dead Ringer

So, what is one to do in a world of interruptions? DeMarco and Lister, writing in a more primitive time, suggested stuffing tissue paper into the ringer bells on the office telephones, and that solution, indeed, worked. With the jarring noise of the bells muted, and the Pavlovian response stifled, programmers enjoyed greater productivity.

In the world of telephony applications, the best we’ve accomplished to date is to ever so slightly mitigate the problem of fractured attention. Voicemail helps, and caller ID lets us assign different ringtones to each call, but that requires attention to determine whether to answer the call. A few adventurous souls have telephony applications with more elaborate guardians against incoming calls.

But those applications are negative in that they merely mitigate the ill effects of interruptions. What is much rarer is an application that helps focus attention (i.e., a positive application). Jott and similar applications help you make quick notes—an easy way to fend off an errant thought, put it aside for later, and maintain focus. But what about an application that keeps you focused?

The nontelephony side of speech technology certainly provides an excellent, common, and yet simple example: dictation. A doctor can look at an X-ray and dictate his report, which is certainly a lot faster than writing  by hand or typing. The doctor uses speech technology to remain focused on reading the X-ray.

To move beyond that, a speech application that helps maintain and improve focus is very difficult to imagine. I play music, but I’ve never seen an audio application that could listen to a piece, let me know what key we’re in, and indicate suggested chords. I write, and while I can outline a vastly improved text-based tool to make writing better and more efficient, I have yet to conceive of an audio-based tool that would accomplish the same thing. 

Some tools might make me a better listener. At technical conferences today, people use their laptops to take notes and search for Web sites or concepts mentioned by the speaker. A speech recognition-based note-taking and automatic search tool would actually augment my ability to actively listen to talks and lectures.

Finally, as a frequent public speaker, I’m always interested in ideas that can improve my presentations. The only speech recognition-based tool to improve public speaking that I’ve seen is a rather peculiar wristwatch: Program it with your undesirable verbal ticks (“You know?”) and each time you say one the watch issues a slight electric shock. I’d hardly say that qualifies as keeping you more focused on your speaking, but I do admit, having listened to more than a few speakers with annoying verbal ticks, watching them twitch during their talks would be quite entertaining.

Moshe Yudkowsky, Ph.D., is president of Disaggregate Consulting and author of The Pebble and the Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions. He can be reached at speech@pobox.com.

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