Once upon a time this was a simple question to answer, you started at a given hour and finished at a given hour, deducted an hour for lunch and twenty minutes for tea breaks and multiplied by five. The only ambiguity for some office workers was if to include their commute time or not.

For most people, today, the answer can be extremely difficult to calculate. (Now let’s immediately agree that, for most office employees, working today has got to be a lot more inspiring than it was in the 1950’s, or even up to the point where the short message and then later, email and the internet made their impact).  So, let’s assume you can calculate the number of hours you work, considering all the out of ‘normal’ office hours interruptions from messages and mails one finds so hard to resist. I think many people will be very surprised to see how high it is.  However, I don’t think it is the number we should be worried about, rather than the inefficiency of it all.

Humans evolved to handle one task at a time.  Yet in this last decade we have forced ourselves to become interrupt driven.  With each, even minor interrupt, our brains need to place a great deal of data into short-term memory, only to try and retrieve it again, once the interrupt is over. Until the next one occurs, of course.

Some scientists say that this interrupt context switching results in a reduction of brain performance efficiency of up to 40%, when compared with the amount of time it would have taken to complete a series of tasks, one after another.  Therefore, we are all working much harder just to get the same amount of stuff done, even though we think we are achieving a lot more than before!

Continual context switching has side effects in the form of extremely high stress levels and can, over time, warp our sense of self-importance. By constantly having to respond to multiple stimuli, we begin to feel ‘irreplaceable’.

But the pressure is not all from work, family, friends, suppliers, schools, societies, you name it are all now invading our space.  And what may be very surprising is that convenience things like ready meals and dishwashers don’t help; they only free up more time for context switching. There is research that suggests that cooking a full meal from scratch every evening is good for one’s health, not only from the quality of what we eat but more importantly by allowing us to switch off from all other interruptions and to focus on its preparation.

And where does all this lead us? To potential burn outs and a loss of the real sense of what is important.

Could it be a good idea for a software company to develop an ap, that responsible employers could deploy on their smart phones, that use intelligent filters to allow the sending of information at a time convenient to the author but restricts its delivery, according to its content and the time zone of the receiver? So, for example, only business messages get through between 08:00 and 17:00, local time.  Then for emergencies, if the sender re-sends twice in quick succession, the recipient receives it right away but is asked, ‘was this an emergency?’ afterwards.  If the answer is no – the sender is blocked from sending emergency messages for a given period of time.  Just an idea…?

Have a good week,