Right now in my task bar: Windows Explorer, Word, Excel, Thunderbird, Notepad+ (four documents), Picture Viewer, and three Firefox windows (ten tabs). And this is a slow day. But hey — they call it Windows, plural, for a reason, right?

But all that multitasking is probably why I never get anything done. The productivity paradox lives, according to this ComputerWorld article. It’s not just having lots of apps open; the proliferation of gadgets on our desk, in our pockets, and hanging from our ears may be stoking a significant productivity drain:

…contrary to any assumptions about their usefulness — personal computers, smartphones, notebooks, netbooks and associated gadgets can be such massively beguiling, addictive time sinks that they materially damage the economy — draining it by one-sixteenth, according to one calculation [Lamont Wood, “Office technology: Productivity boost or time sink?ComputerWorld: Management, 2010.03.30].

Multitasking means interruptions. An expert in this article says that when you interrupt a task, it will take you 10 to 20 times the length of the interruption to get back to where you were in your pre-interruption task. So, you’re working on a report, you pause for a minute to check your e-mail, and it may take 10 to 20 minutes to get back into the groove of your report.

Humans just can’t multitask the way computers do… because we’ve got dopamine juicing our brains:

Edward Hallowell, a physician in Arlington, Mass., also wrote a book, CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap, based on what he’d seen in his practice. “The modern search for stimulation invites multitasking, but the brain can’t do it; we don’t have the neurological equipment,” he says.

“The use of an interactive screen, where you can go back and forth, plugs into the same dopamine circuits that drive most addictions,” Hallowell says. “I call the result ‘screen sucking’ — you go online to check e-mail and you’re still there two hours later. You get a little squirt of dopamine and you want more, like a rat pushing a lever over and over” [Wood, 2010]

Office workers as self-doping rats… hmm….

Sometimes you have to have more than one pot boiling. But when a task matters, just do it. Establish some boundaries, put up a Do Not Disturb sign, switch your Skype status to offline, and focus on one task at a time.

Worth Noting: buried at the bottom of the ComputerWorld article (just like at the bottom of this post!) is a note that the information revolution has done some good for productivity. Collaboration, research, contact, and financial management have all been made easier and cheaper by these screens and keyboards and the Web. All so we have more time to buy chickens on Farm Town.