Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Don't Interrupt Me

Study: Brief interruptions spawn errors

Short interruptions – such as the few seconds it takes to silence that buzzing smartphone – have a surprisingly large effect on one's ability to accurately complete a task, according to new research led by Michigan State University.

In the good ol' days when I knew how to concentrate I also knew that maintaining concentration for extended periods often required the satisfaction in knowing I could continue uninterrupted for however long I chose to be focused on the task at hand. A small quiet place is one of the most important assets for good work.

How bloody ironic, in typing out "A small quiet place" I was interrupted by the memory of a discussion a few nights ago when I said to a friend that the phrase "a well lit place" reminded me of a Hemmingway poem I studied in literature at university. It is a short story, not a poem.  Externally we need a small quiet place and internally we need distraction filters. Which reminds me of the famous story about a golf player at St. Andrews I think where there was a train line nearby. While he was preparing for an important shot a train whistle blasted but the golfer continued. When asked if the train bothered him he replied, "What train?" Perhaps, the story does highlight a common feature in the productive and creative: the ability to keep focused on the task at hand.

Some months ago I saw a PBS documentary about the introduction of mindfulness training into some US high schools, with good results being reported. The good results are not surprising to many of those who have practiced meditation and many studies point to important benefits, both psychologically and physiologically, from regular meditation training. Thus I remember the story of the Buddhist master describing the value of meditation. He said it was like crossing a lake, for that you needed a canoe. Meditation is the canoe. Once you have crossed the lake you no longer need the canoe.

Consider the possibility that is not that mindfulness meditation is that extraordinary but rather we exist in a culture that promotes distraction and this is a less than ideal environment for some cognitive functions to mature to their full potential. Education has typically not addressed enhancing concentration directly but more as effect arising from forcing students to memorise endless series of facts and not-so-facts. That helps but directly  addressing "internal management" is more potent and the Buddhists have been doing that stuff for thousands of years so have some important lessons to offer. I just wish they would stop comparing canoes.

There are many ways to meditate and I don't care about anything beyond the mundane quantifiable effects arising from regular meditation practice. Whatever inferences others may draw from their experience that suggests to them a metaphysical apprehension can be determined by a new perceptual state is a logical position they are welcome to entertain. I'm content with the mundane, we have enough challenges apprehending that so I am perplexed as to why we should struggle with the Other. It is like trying to cross a lake without a canoe.

Having typed this far I finally hear the next musical piece playing because it is one of my favourites. "Windsong", the middle piece in the beautiful "Luminessence" album by Jarrett and Garbarek. That's the problem with so much digital technology, we want it to distract us, we like it to distract us. The temptation is too great. Consider my present state: while writing this out listening to music, monitoring two discussion forums and one chat line, my inbox is loaded to warn me of incoming emails, my smartphone is not on silent but I am supposed to be thinking which is when I do make it silent. Sound familiar? Life in the 21st century.

If we are expecting interruptions that alone will impact on our ability to remain focused. It is now normative to be interrupted, it is difficult for some to find a small, quiet place where they can focus on whatever without fear of interruption. It is no co-incidence that intellectual types are more likely to be night owls, when noise and light are minimised thereby limiting those sources of distraction and the much less likelihood someone would be an interruption.

The above study is consistent with earlier studies that specifically addressed this issue in relation to multi-tasking, that great buzzword of the 80's that was only about one thing: maximising human productivity. It does do that but at the cost of productivity at each individual task. There is no paradox there, it increases productivity by reducing the number employed. It does alleviate tedium but it's near universal application is an error. There are times when we should be free from potential distraction, there are tasks where we are much more productive when we know we will not be interrupted. Ideally employees should have access to periods of time where they are guaranteed no distractions. I'm sure that happens but I suspect not often enough.

The challenge here may be greater than we think. Some years ago I read how public views plays and other  public displays a few hundred years ago were typically an incredibly loud and raucous crowd, sort of what can happen at some movies these days only much worse. Only last night I was watching a series, "Warriors", on Napoleon, and one scene involved a theatre and that is exactly how they were behaving. Yelling, jumping up and down, more like a bar than a play.

Modern life creates a double bind: concentration does not come naturally but modern culture mitigates against the capacity for sustained concentration. The solution is easy: To whatever extent possible find your small, quiet place at work and at home. It is not just the fact of having that time that is important. As studies have indicated regular meditation can very much enhance our capacity to avoid distraction, markedly improves "inhibition of return". I had an interesting personal experience in the application of this concept at the clinical level. When I was under the "care" of those crazy rehabilitation people they sent me off to a psychiatrist for an evaluation. When I sat down I noted that behind me were some stuffed small toys and thought that seemed odd. As the psychiatrist continued I heard a loud buzzing behind me. Turned around and saw one of the stuffed toys shaking. "Fine", I thought, "a test for inhibition of return". Didn't turn again. That's the trouble with those tricks, if the patient knows the trick ... . Nonetheless a good idea because it enables the psychiatrist to gain some idea of the patient's ability to avoid distraction. Even if the patient knew the trick some patients might not turn around but display other visible features of distraction. Most patients would not know about inhibition of return

What is remarkable is how well we have adapted to the demands of the modern age. To sit still for so long, to spend 25 years of life preparing to work when in hunter gatherer societies children may start working at age 5, to live in such radically different environments, is all evidence that as the anthropologists have long argued: human beings are specialist generalists. All promising but there is also evidence of an increasing mis-match between the demands of modern life and the realities of modern human behavior and our physiology. This book specifically addresses that issue. No need to panic but there is always the need to think carefully about how we approach challenges and learn to take advantage of a growing body of research that will aid our progress on this road to somewhere.

In the meantime, develop your own small, quiet place. That's a good start.

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