Wednesday, February 15, 2012

May I Have Your Attention Please?

Every three minutes, the average worker breaks from their current task to focus on something other than what they are currently focused on. These breaks, which could include anything from checking email to investigating what’s hot on YouTube, are caused by our ever-depleting attention spans. These distractions consume as much as 28% of the average worker’s day and cost up to $65 billion annually in productivity for American businesses.

The reason we get so distracted? Human beings are not built to stay on task, but to stay alert and able to quickly adapt to change. Generations before have had to cope with distractions as well, but were never exposed to so many concentration-thwarting electronic gadgets that beep, ping and blink in an effort to win our attention. To help the American worker fight these distractions, companies such as IBM and Microsoft are finding that the answer may be to fight technology with technology.

Eric Horvitz, a principle researcher at Microsoft, has spent the last decade creating an artificial intelligence system that observes humans in their work environment. These software programs, loaded onto computers and various hand-held devices, listen to the user, track calendars and note key contacts, all while applying mathematical formulas to estimate the cost and benefit of interrupting someone while on task. While the original program Horvitz designed is not ready for the mainstream, his work has inspired Microsoft to create Outlook Mobil Manager. The program recognizes urgent emails, enabling the software to decide which device the email should be routed based on importance. Future versions of Windows will likely use another element from Horvitz’s work called bounded deferral. This feature holds messages in reserve until the user is ready for a ‘cognitive break.’

IMSavvy, which is IBM’s answer to distraction management in the workplace, functions as an instant messaging answering machine. The program has the ability to sense when you are away or busy by your typing or mouse patterns and informs potential interrupters that you are unavailable. Future versions could come equipped with the ability to gauge each message. By using audio sensors, the program can decide if a message is worth the interruption based on its importance.

Today’s workers, like those of previous generations, have short attention spans. The problem though, is that the modern work place is ripe with enablers of this behavior. And since it’s technology that hinders our concentration at work, it just might be the answer to help us stay focused.

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