Spend a few hours with Hollywood producer Jennifer Klein, and you might want to pop a Valium. Or slip her one. From the moment she rises at 7 a.m. in the Sunset Boulevard home she shares with her husband, she's a fidgety, demanding, chattering whirling dervish of a task juggler. Right now Klein, 41, whose credits include Pearl Harbor and Armageddon, has 15 film and TV projects in development--all of them requiring constant nudging and nurture. Her strategy for managing that and several overflowing In boxes: never do just two things at once if you can possibly do four or five.
"I'm an obsessive and addicted multitasker and gadget user," Klein cheerily concedes. A typical moment at her office finds Klein reviewing a screenplay by phone with its writers and jotting notes while glancing at an incoming e-mail on her BlackBerry, motioning signals to her assistant and firing off an instant message to a studio exec. "Here's how bad it is," she confesses. "When I'm flying, right before the plane lands, before the seat-belt sign goes on, I get the BlackBerry out and put it in front of me in the seat-back compartment. That way I can turn it on as soon as I land and see that little light flashing."
Actually, it gets worse than that for a woman known to do her daily sit-ups during a conference call. "While I'm driving, I've got the cell phone out. I'm drinking a cup of coffee, checking the Palm Pilot for the number and then calling," boasts Klein. Yup, got that all done while stuck in traffic.
Like many other modern workers, Klein takes pride in being a master multitasker, zipping through her daily to-do list: "I see the red lights go on or hear the beep, and I love it." But she has noticed some drawbacks and even some side effects: impatience, irritability and (gasp) some inefficiency. "Sometimes when e-mail goes down, I'm actually more productive, because I can concentrate on something," she says. She finds herself angry and snappish when callers make poor use of her endless availability. Although she feels anxious when her In box is empty, she feels no better when it's full: "When I wake up in the morning and have 15 e-mails, I get a nervous stomach."
Klein's action- and anxiety-packed work style may be extreme, but she's really only a couple of juggling pins ahead of most of us. By now every modern officeworker--from the mail-room clerk to the CEO--knows that the gadgets designed to lighten our loads also ensnare us. And the dinging digital devices that allow us to connect and communicate so readily also disrupt our work, our thoughts and what little is left of our private lives.
What sort of toll is all this disruption and mental channel switching taking on our ability to think clearly, work effectively and function as healthy human beings? Do the devices that make it possible to do so many things at once truly raise our productivity or merely help us spin our wheels faster? Over the past five years, psychologists, efficiency experts and information-technology researchers have begun to explore those questions in detail. They have begun to calculate the pluses, the minuses and the economic costs of the interrupted life--in dollars, productivity and dysfunction. More important, they're exploring what can be done about it--how we can work smarter, live smarter and put our beloved gadgets back in their proper place, with us running them, not the other way around.