Rebecca Blood provides a link to a fascinating report ín the New York Times on a study of office workers' patterns of interruption which puts much of the blame on computer hardware design. It seems that the more windows you have open on one monitor, the more stressed your short-term memory becomes. (And I thought that was middle age...)
According to researchers Gloria Mark and Mary Czerwinski, the monitor may in fact act as a bottleneck, causing us stress as we strive to remember what else we have open, and what we have to do next:
Some experts argue that the basic design of the computer needs to change: so long as computers deliver information primarily through a monitor, they have an inherent bottleneck - forcing us to squeeze the ocean of our lives through a thin straw. David Rose, the Cambridge designer, suspects that computers need to break away from the screen, delivering information through glanceable sources in the world around us, the way wall clocks tell us the time in an instant. For computers to become truly less interruptive, they might have to cease looking like computers. Until then, those Post-it notes on our monitors are probably here to stay.
Professionals who follow work management guru David Allen's advice about managing technology -induced stress are known as 'life hackers', and technology writer Danny O' Brien discusses his interest in them:
At the core of Allen's system is the very concept of memory that Mark and Czerwinski hit upon: unless the task you're doing is visible right in front of you, you will half-forget about it when you get distracted, and it will nag at you from your subconscious. Thus, as soon as you are interrupted, Allen says, you need either to quickly deal with the interruption or - if it's going to take longer than two minutes - to faithfully add the new task to your constantly updated to-do list. Once the interruption is over, you immediately check your to-do list and go back to whatever is at the top.
"David Allen essentially offers a program that you can run like software in your head and follow automatically," O'Brien explains. "If this happens, then do this. You behave like a robot, which of course really appeals to geeks."
O'Brien summed up his research in a speech called "Life Hacks," which he delivered in February 2004 at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference. Five hundred conference-goers tried to cram into his session, desperate for tips on managing info chaos. When O'Brien repeated the talk the next year, it was mobbed again. By the summer of 2005, the "life hacks" meme had turned into a full-fledged grass-roots movement. Dozens of "life hacking" Web sites now exist, where followers of the movement trade suggestions on how to reduce chaos. The ideas are often quite clever: O'Brien wrote for himself a program that, whenever he's surfing the Web, pops up a message every 10 minutes demanding to know whether he's procrastinating. It turns out that a certain amount of life-hacking is simply cultivating a monklike ability to say no.
Strategies for managing short term memory loss induced by the computer's inflexibility here range from military aircraft-like dashboards and large plasma TV size monitors to Merlin Mann's low-tech PDA, manufactured from 3"X5" index cards, which he has christened the "Hipster PDA".
( Enjoy the leading life hacker's website, won't you. I've just finished reading Scott Andrews' excellent post there, on how I would have been living now if I'd kept singing at weddings. And here's one seriously obsessed fan of index cards' take on (gulp) customising them with a computer. I confess, I came THIS close to buying index cards plus box last week for writing ideas.)
A lot of this reminds me of some reading I came across very early in library school regarding a study done of doctors in a prominent US hospital, who were asked if they would use a computer laid out in the shape of a large desk, with documents displayed as virtual piles of paper...Of course I'll quote it in full when I remember where I've put the article!!