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Czerwinski has also been helping Microsoft design alternatives to current software products to allow workers to stay on task for longer periods, even as onscreen interruptions arrive. In next-generation systems, which Microsoft's competitors are pursuing as well, interruptions are designed to be less intrusive--nothing flashes, pops up or makes a noise--and the alerts appear on the periphery of a screen that's larger than today's standards so that workers stay centered on their main task. The key, she says, is for an incoming message to provide just enough information for the worker to judge whether to grab it or ignore it until later. "We found that it's more calming to give them subtle alerts that aren't intrusive and which, should you glance at them, let you know whether you need to worry," she says.
U.C. Irvine's Mark also thinks improved technology will help, but she points to low-tech solutions as well. Some companies, she notes, give employees DO NOT INTERRUPT screens to put over their cubicles or establish quiet times when it's not permissible to bother a colleague. In some offices, she says, "workers wear colored hats to signify when they do and do not want to be interrupted." Another simple trick, suggests Spira, is to leave more explicit instructions on e-mail "away messages" and answering machines about how and when you prefer to be interrupted.
But to truly take control of our productivity, we also have to stop fooling ourselves about our capacities to juggle. We have to resist the "it will only take a second" impulse to read an e-mail, check a stock price or chat with a colleague in the middle of a demanding assignment. At the same time, we have to stop pretending that we are machines that can endlessly process tasks without a break. There's a reason that research shows the No. 1 work interruption is not an electronic signal but rather a human being stopping by. It's the same reason a personal call feels welcome even when you are superbusy. We are social creatures, and to do our best work, we need to set aside time in the workday to connect with others--and also to break free from our checklist and just think.
Psychiatrist Hallowell offers some basic solutions to multitasking mania in a book to be published in April, titled CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap--Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD. Among his suggestions: prioritize ruthlessly ("Cultivate the lilies, or the things that fulfill you," he says, "and cut the leeches, those that deplete you"), allot 30 minutes a day for thinking, relaxing or meditating, and get significant doses of what he calls vitamin C--the live connection to other people. "As much as we are connected electronically, we have disconnected interpersonally," he says. Compulsive screen sucking, he suggests, may actually be a symptom of vitamin-C deficiency. To perform your best, maintain your individual creativity and avoid the pitfalls of ADT, he insists, "you want to have some face-to-face moments of closeness." And when you do, turn off that blinking BlackBerry.