Being Instantly Responsive Might Hurt Us

Posted on January 27, 2011. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , |

Being instantly responsive might actually get in the way of doing our work.  At least that is one of the hypotheses of Professor Sherry Turkle at MIT.   I had the fortunate opportunity recently to speak with Sherry, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor at MIT and the founder (2001) and the current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self.  I remember Sherry’s engaging manner and deep thoughtfulness from a talk she gave at the TED conference many years ago.  So it was a delightful surprise to be able to discuss her research on the relationship people have with technology today.  Her findings are extensive (and you can read about them in her new book, Alone Together. (special note: Sherry has published a trilogy on this topic, made up of Alone Together, Second Self and Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet)

One of the theses Sherry puts forth is that since technologies have let us work anywhere and at anytime, we expect our friends, family and business contacts to be instantly responsive.  That means that we are constantly multitasking; we are doing our “real” work while we are listening to, or thinking how to respond to, the text, tweet, email or phone call that continuously interrupt us.  That leads to the myth of multitasking—the belief that we can do just as well on our work when we pay partial attention as we can when we pay full attention.

Certainly my daughter believes that she can do just as well on her homework when she’s constantly seeing pop-up windows telling her that someone has sent her an email or commented on her Facebook page.  We are kidding ourselves if we think that multitasking is actually making us more productive.  It may be doing so to a point, but I believe that after that point, it’s diminishing returns. It’s impossible to go to lunch with anyone these days and not have a cell phone interruption.  It’s not much of a conversation when your lunchtime companion is checking texts or emails or even for voice mails.

This has broad implications for the business environment, too.  As we add the social dimension to our collaboration, as we incorporate activity streams and Twitter-like tools that allow for increased connectivity to our colleagues, we set an expectation that our colleague will answer quickly when we ping them during the work day.  We have to ask if there is a point after which we are really hurting productivity instead of adding to it.  After all, some tasks require us to actually concentrate and think.  And if we are trying to be instantly responsive, we don’t have that uninterrupted time.

Our organizations must be instantly responsive, but that doesn’t mean each individual must be.  We need organization mechanisms that allow for instant responses, but that doesn’t mean each individual must be online at all times.

Perhaps as we bring social tools into our work environments, and we devise our social business policies to help workers understand the guidelines and boundaries for appropriate use, we need to think about setting expectations on individuals responding instantly.   We must make sure that social business doesn’t mean that we are always online and always waiting to respond.  In the work environment (and the homework environment) we need some uninterrupted time.  And we may need tools to help us make that happen, too.

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One Response to “Being Instantly Responsive Might Hurt Us”

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For some reason, reading your excellent post took me back 40+ years to my Electrical Engineering BSc course. One of the the subjects I studied was Control Systems Theory – all about things like responsiveness, positive and negative feedback, error signals and so on.

Sometimes, instant responsiveness is quite undesirable – often leading to instability and unhealthy (e.g. destructive) oscillations. Even in rock and roll (excuse the analogy, but you know my passions!) some of the finest sounding bass and guitar amplifiers were characterized by deficient power supplies, such that when a particularly loud note was struck, the power supply could not keep up and went into “lag”. The result was a warm and sweet sounding amplifier!

So, I’m not totally sure what we can learn from Control Systems and apply personal and organizational behaviors, but I suspect that instant response is often not a good thing to have and the living system trait of homeostasis exists for a reason!


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