Professor's book examines the toll our addiction to connectivity takes on relationships, learning and work performance.

Business Insight: Our constant state of connectedness is taking its toll

In a new book, "Distracted – Staying Connected without Losing Focus,” Rutgers Business School professor Terri Kurtzberg and her co-author Jennifer Gibbs examine how the addictive quality of society’s constant state of connectedness affects relationships, learning, child development and our performance in the workplace.

The authors don’t ignore the opportunities and enhancements technology offers, but they have gathered compelling evidence to show the counterproductive consequences of our addiction to connectivity. The book also offers ideas on how slight adjustments in how use technology can help make our lives better.

In a recent interview, Kurtzberg focused specifically on how constant connectedness can impact an individual’s ability to focus and to produce quality work.

"The workplace piece seems to be the most interesting one for most people. I think that’s where people feel the tension the most," said Kurtzberg, an associate professor of management and global business and a scholar of technology. "The fact that there are too many demands for our attention all day long, that seems to be the worst of the stress."

Q: How did you become interested in the effect technology was having on people, workers and communications?

 A: "As far back as my first year in graduate school, I jumped into a couple of different projects at once. One of them was a project comparing how people negotiate by email compared to face-to-face. Email was still relatively new. At the same time, I was doing work in creativity, which was my dissertation. Over time, it really seemed like the technology piece was so interesting. Everybody I spoke to wanted to know more about it and wanted to talk about it because it was changing our lives so quickly. My co-author, Charles Naquin, and I started work together – we were actually colleagues from graduate school – after we were both situated in our first jobs, looking at the ways people dealt with technology, felt about technology, and how it changed interactions and decisions. We did some research on how feedback changes when you give people a form to fill out about each other online instead of on a piece of paper. We found that it results in systematically lower ratings and more negative feedback, so there were all of these nuances to the way people interacted that we don’t appreciate especially since the changes are happening so fast. We felt like there was a real opportunity to better understand what changes are happening and if we can why they are happening. From there, we slid into the question of what does multi-tasking do to us and how does it change our interactions and our decisions? Our first study in that area was to interrupt people in the middle of a negotiation and then observe what happens to the process and to the relationship between negotiators. We found that the person who was interrupted did perform less well in the negotiation and that was understandable, but we also found that it had an effect on the other person as well, and I feel like that unlocked a whole lot of interesting ideas about this."

Q: What’s the effect of being connected constantly, especially on our work?

A: "There’s pretty good evidence that productivity is going down because we’re getting cognitively burnt out. There are dual processes happening at once here, and the first one is that the brain is acting in ways that are quite indicative of true addiction. We’re very hard-wired to pay attention to flashing lights and little signals. You hear the noise when your text goes off and it is like a little shot of excitement. It’s very hard to say, I just won’t pay attention. The brain just doesn’t work that way. At the same time, we have the second problem that because these interactions with technology are so easy and readily available, we’re not just engaging in them one at a time, but instead are increasingly trying to attend to multiple things at once. We’re overlapping, and we’re stacking in multiple streams. Our brains just can’t handle it. We lose the ability to focus on any one thing. The people who identify as expert multi-taskers are actually worse than average at absorbing and retaining information and producing fewer errors. They don’t actually remember what it feels like to do one thing so they think they’re on top of it all, but, in fact, they’re missing quite a lot."

Professor Terri Kurtzberg
Professor Terri Kurtzberg in the classroom.

Q: How can it be controlled in the workplace? Will we start seeing managers impose office rules regulating when we look at our devices?

A: "I do think there is a big role for management to play in recognizing that this is not good for anyone, and it’s certainly not good for the bottom line. There are a couple of things that managers can do easily to change the tone and to change some of the rules, and one of them is about having black out hours on evenings and weekends when all work messages just need to stop. That is the culture at some places, but certainly not at all. I think that kind of electronic tether is especially prominent when people end up working late hours or during their supposed time off like weekends and vacations. It brings a tremendous amount of freedom to be able to keep on top of things from wherever you are. On the other hand, it comes with this dark side, it means you can be reached wherever you are. The expectations end up being quite problematic. If it’s very clear that you’re not expected to do these things and, in fact, it’s discouraged, it gives a lot of peace back to the individual in terms of their daily rhythms."

Technology is changing everything – even language: These are some of the new terms inspired by and coined to reflect conditions influenced by the digital world

Context collapse: The idea that boundaries no longer exist between our different worlds. That can cause some stress of its own, according to Kurtzberg.

Cascading inattention: A term coined to describe how the more often you’re pulled out of something, the harder it is to refocus on it once you return.

Accomplishment junkies (Coined by Kurtzberg): This refers to the uniquely American obsession with accomplishing something in every waking minute of our time. This is not the same in other cultures, where relaxation and spending time with others can be the whole goal. Our society is putting pressure on us that technology feeds into. With an electronic device in your hand, you never need to have a wasted minute. Even things that should be natural pleasures like going out and getting exercise is something that we tend to schedule in. Americans are just not good at all about downtime.

Relationship overload: The condition that results from the sheer number of ways that we have to keep in touch with one another or the responsibility people feel to meet the needs of others via social media.

-Susan Todd

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