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On the culture of distraction; one pipe for all interruptions?

Driven to distraction by technology | CNET News.com

Really good article on the problems and implications of the interruption-driven lifestyle. Full of great bits, including this:

Businesses could benefit from introducing a collective effort to switch off, Honore said. He points to the marketing department at Veritas Software, which last year instituted “E-mail-free Fridays” for its marketing department. The move came at the behest of Jeremy Burton, an executive vice president who was finding his in-box stuffed with 400 messages a day, many from his own department.

In Burton’s department, employees can’t e-mail one another on Friday, but they are allowed to e-mail customers or other parts of the storage company if they have to. The result? Workers spend more time connecting face to face, and Burton finds his in-box is only half as full.

And when it comes to finishing up a big project, many workers are unplugging altogether—something that Microsoft’s [Chris] Capossela says should not have to be the answer.

Well-written software could offer a better solution, he said. It should help employees stay connected but enable them to receive only messages they want to get—from a boss or family member, say.

Also, Carl Honore, the author of In Praise of Slowness (Amazon.com: US | UK | CA | FR | DE | JP) offers great tips like this, among others:

Before using any time-saving technology, ask yourself if you could perform the task…more efficiently using an old-fashioned method such as walking across the office and talking face to face.

I really do encourage you to read the whole article, because it gets to the heart of a problem that’s contributing to most everyone’s stress and feeling of being constantly overwhelmed. And you might want to follow it up with seeing how Billy G. reportedly carves out a “Think Week” each year.

The piece of technology we could really use

Danny and I (as well as many other folks, obviously) have been thinking about this stuff a lot lately. Seems like most of our problems today don’t stem from a dearth of technology or a lack of access to the tools we need; we have faster, bigger, and more powerful crap than most of us can ever hope to fully use, plus it’s available everywhere. We’re drinking from a freakin’ fire hose. The real trick will be figuring out how to get all these devices’ copious output delivered in a way that’s meaningful, contextual, and timely.

I’m starting to think that devices and applications should share a standard—like an API, I suppose—that can pipe to something like Growl (or what Quicksilver calls its “Notification Hub”). That way, we could each adapt all the streams of data, alarms, and updates in our lives into our own logic-based system. That way you're not beholden to how Outlook, iCal, Bloglines, AIM, or what have you chooses to tap you on the shoulder.

Add Bayesian filtering and rules-based behaviors to the mix and there’s at least a hope that we could only be notified (read: “interrupted”) when something truly important is happening within the froth of information that’s sprayed at our heads all day. Here’s hoping, anyhow.

The standard part would be a relative breeze; I’m guessing the tricky part would be to get adoption from a bunch of competing companies. Still, everybody would benefit from having a product that “plugged in” to a popular notifications protocol. Standards worked for light sockets, headphone plugs, sewer lids, and railroad tracks. Maybe it’s time to demand our “productivity” products play a little nicer together, too. Pipe dream? You tell me.

Merlin's picture

Yeah, exactly, Andrew. A terrific...

Yeah, exactly, Andrew. A terrific example of this need is MS Entourage, which is functionally very strong at tracking todos and events, but it relies on a janky external app for showing me alarms. It has almost no configurability, zero filtering, and relies on a bunch of non-standard-behaving dropdown menus for me to interact with it. It kind of sours how otherwise strong the main app is at its job if it falls short at the interaction point where I need it to be smarter.

I’m thinking this notional standard should have things like multiple categories and tags and operate basically “headless,” just sending streams of XML data to whatever “notification hub” you’ve configured. THAT’s where all the filtering and customization happens. Where you could say, for example,

“For the next THREE HOURS, send LO-PRIORITY ONSCREEN notifications HOURLY for [EMAILS | IMs] from MYBOSS and MYTEAM; MID-PRIORITY POPUPS for [ANY] from MYGIRLFRIEND; HI-PRIORITY POPUPS for any EVENT tagged EMERGENCY; else send to EVENTINBOX without notification”

An app that does this pretty well now is Adium, which, as apps go, has an extraordinary level of customization, honoring my “Groups” and letting me make granular decisions about the kind of notifications I want. I want that abstracted to all kinds of apps and notifications, and I want it controllable from a central, configurable location.

Is that so much to ask? ;-)




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