Does Search Increase Or Destroy Productivity?

Despite everything I hear about focus making us more effective, I'm a chronic multitasker. My computer screen flickers incessantly with alerts from Tweetdeck, Skype and Gmail; if something pings or flashes, I simply must investigate.

So you can imagine my concern when I read this article from the New York Times about our brains on computers. We're losing all ability to focus, claims Matt Richtel. "While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress. And scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist."

(I am embarrassed to admit that I had to fight the urge to flick over and check my email while I was reading the article.)



So our brave new world of continuous stimulation and excessive multitasking is stressing us out -- fair enough. But does that mean we've become unable to function? Consider this headline from "Google Pac-Man Zapped 4.8M Hours of Productivity." The implication is that the time would otherwise have been spent in gainful pursuits; likewise, we should have been able to recoup the 15 minutes to 2 hours a day we spend on social media sites at work or the180 million sick days taken by workers in the U.K. in 2009.

The logic is fatally flawed, of course, and exclusively linear: time spent in non-financially productive online endeavors equals a "loss of productivity." But a University of Melbourne study says that "surfing the net at work for pleasure actually increases our concentration levels and helps make a more productive workforce." How could you possibly separate the Pac-Man loss from the $54 billion positive impact Google has on the economy? Even Mr. Campbell, the scatterbrained digital addict profiled in the New York Times piece, managed to sell one business for $1.3 million and raise several million in funding for another -- just in the course of the article.

The behavioral revolution we've experienced since the first Web site went live in 1993 has been in some ways an improvement, in others a downgrade. What we cannot do is separate out the bits we like from the bits we don't like. We can't get the 9% increase in productivity from the Melbourne study without the loss in productivity touted by the New York Times. We don't get the $54 billion Google economy -- including the careers of most people reading this article -- without the hours spent playing the predictive search game. ("Should I," for example, predicts, "Should I leave my husband?" Really? You're asking Google?)

As with anything, what it comes down to is balance. In my own office, there are no restrictions on personal Web usage -- and staff are passionate and hardworking. At home, I control my own addiction with a single rule: no networked devices in the bedroom. (My husband will laugh if he reads this, and point out that I dart out to the living room to check my email at the first opportunity.)

We live in an interconnected world, and there's little any of us can do about that. The question is, how are you going to handle it? How do you handle it? Let me know, here or on @kcolbin.

3 comments about "Does Search Increase Or Destroy Productivity? ".
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  1. Lee Rappaport, June 8, 2010 at 1:42 p.m.

    I attended a wedding over this past weekend. I was saddened to see how many people were on their blackberries or Iphone during the dinner, while others were dancing and when speeches by the best man & maid of honor were given.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, June 8, 2010 at 1:43 p.m.

    It's not the people who can handle it. The problems lay in the people who cannot handle it. Does the world and its opportunities close up for them? And the variations upon that theme.

  3. Laura Rettally , June 8, 2010 at 5:25 p.m.

    I think anxiety levels also raises up when multitasking. I feel helpless when I try to get some focus and I just can't stop get distracted by other things like emails, phone calls or when suddenly I remember to not forget something!! Is something complicated to handle these days..

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