…I often hear this rationalization: It’s a way to multitask and increase efficiency. But neuroscientists tell us that dividing our attention between competing stimuli instead of handling tasks one at a time actually makes us less efficient.
Still, the illusion that multitasking can aid productivity is powerful. And it’s abetted by the fact that splitting our attention between real and virtual worlds can produce a kind of neural intoxication, research shows.
Through our devices, we find a way to disappear without leaving the room. By splitting ourselves off and reaching out electronically, we fill empty interpersonal space and ignite our senses. We can find relief and a fleeting sense of freedom.
Decades ago, the sociologist Barry Schwartz commended the group-preserving functions of dissociating. Everyone, he said, reaches a threshold beyond which working with others is irritating, even unendurable.
Finding a mental escape can help us deal with the problem. But electronic devices have led to a serious overuse of this strategy — to the detriment of everyone.
Count how many times this happens each day, and you begin to understand the cumulative effect of electronic incivility in the workplace. For one thing, other workers need to pick up the slack caused by the wandering attention and diluted energies of their e-cruising colleagues.
Not only that, when people disappear from formal or informal meetings via their electronic devices, their colleagues interpret it this way: “You are less important to me than my cellphone/P.D.A./laptop/latest gizmo.
In my research, I’ve learned that when employees behave in an uncivil way, their colleagues may take retribution. They might withhold information — for example, by “forgetting” to include the offender’s name on a final product. Or they might see to it that he or she ends up with a less desirable task next time. Or they might even refuse to work with the person again…
Barry Schwartz is the author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less and more recently, Practical Wisdom.