Your favorite way to communicate at work may be making it harder to focus.
This story first appeared on The Huffington Post.
This is important. Gchat is ruining your life.
And mine, too.
As I type these words, four boxes flash an enticing blue atop my inbox. They cover about two-thirds of my unread mail and they beg for attention--at least from the click of my mouse--before I can return to my duty at hand, which, in the most meta of ways, is writing this article.
This is the vicious nagging of Gchat. Google's talk technology is one that Gmail users, 20-somethings and office employees, in particular, use around the country tocommunicate. Google describes the chat technology on their support page: "Gmail's not just for email--you can also communicate with your friends in real time using chat!" As irony will have it, good communication is often the sacrifice when we leap from tab to tab, juggling the work we're meant to complete on our monitors along with the many, needy little windows imploring for our attention.
Our reliance on Gchat grew out of necessity. The rise of open-office spaces has stolen workers' freedom to speak privately. "When you're in an open office space, you can't have quick conversation without disturbing those around you," Chandler Bolt, the author of The Productive Person, tells The Huffington Post. Workers are also concerned about eavesdropping, so they turn to the "safety" of their screens to trade ideas, platitudes and tribulations with colleagues through online chat.
But this isn't getting us anywhere. While a concise instant message may seem to be an efficient way to touch base (without strains like rising from your swivel chair), the interaction can quickly turn trite or futile. "A lot of the stuff that happens on Gchat is not necessarily productive and wouldn't be talked about in real life--it's surface-level nonsense that's getting in the way of why you're in the office to begin with," Bolt says. The more time you spend swapping complaints about your boss, links to the best video you've seen all year and--oh, right--questions about work, the harder it becomes to recover and produce.
Gchat Forces Us To Multitask
The quintessential problem with Gchat is that it encourages the user to multitask, which some scientists argue, is a not actually possible. When we undertake more than one responsibility at a time, each task tends to be fulfilled less effectively than if we had given it our full attention. As Douglas Merrill writes on Forbes, "Our brains just aren’t equipped for multitasking tasks that do require brainpower."
Effectively, each time we jump from task to task, we have to re-learn the task we momentarily left behind. "We underestimate how long it takes to recover from interruptions and get back on-task," Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of The Distraction Addiction, wrote in an email to HuffPost. "We have a phenomenal capacity to manage multiple streams of data, or coordinate several tasks, when they all are part of the same bigger activity and contribute to a common goal: not only can we do it, we find immense pleasure in it. The problem is that the modern workplaces throws lots of different, little, conflicting things at us."
A simple way to think of this: You've decided to generously help your coworker brainstorm over Gchat for her project, intermittently, while attempting to complete your own assignment. But you're not really doing anybody any favors: The two projects are unrelated, and your brain struggles to recover each time you switch from one to the other (even if the Gchat brainstorm lasts just a couple of seconds each time).
In 2009, researchers at Stanford University published a study revealing that online multi-taskers are more easily distractible, struggle more with organization and concentration and are not as dynamic as their uni-tasking counterparts. These kind of doers, who try with octopus arms to complete several tasks at once, come up short. Gchat is almost never your priority, but it does demand some of your focus, thus forcing you to (inefficiently) multitask. Even if you're not engaged, that little alert will steal your attention--if only for a moment.
Gchat Makes Us Believe Our Friends Are Superhuman
By the law of physics, we, as human beings, cannot be in two places at once. Gchat disillusions this truth. We are not inextricably linked to our devices, but Gchat makes it easy to suggest otherwise. An after-hours email check or computer left signed in can make it seem as if we are ever-present creatures, ready to respond and be helpful.
"We live in a society where everybody's used to an instantaneous response," life coach Debra Smouse tells HuffPost. "When the response doesn't come, we begin to worry." When we don't hear back, our minds start to spiral, creating "crazy scenarios and we begin to believe that something is wrong." We know logically that a friend may have left his or her desk or a colleague may be on a call, but when we're on the other end and stress hits, an unanswered chat box is discomforting, and logic goes out the window.
There's a dissonance between our present handles and non-present attention, and it's a confusing reality.
"[Technologies like Gchat] make us think that because the technology is 'instant' and free, people should respond instantly--and there's something wrong when they don't," adds Pang. Pang says that people assume speed is always good, and that's a wrong assumption. Speed, ultimately, will lead to thoughtlessness.
Gchat Might Just Make us Co-Dependent, Less Creative and Uncomfortable Relying on our own Brains.
Why ask Google when you can ask a friend? Gchat's accessibility to smart people with whom we share personal relationships makes finding answers easy--or so we think. But often, typing a "quick q?" to a friend becomes more disruptive and distracting than digging for the answer yourself.
"Easy accessibility to other people can encourage us to ask simple questions," writes Pang. "That's not necessarily a bad thing--it can signal trust, for example, and we rely on other people to remember things for us all the time, or don't bother to memorize them because we know our spouses (or iPhones) are really good at remembering." So, going to the experts--even over Gchat--can be insightful and time-saving, but there are boundaries that often get crossed.
Since there's almost aways someone to run an idea by online, we grow less comfortable trusting ourselves for the answer. "[Tools like Gchat] privilege collaboration and exchange over serious solitary thinking," Pang writes. "Today, our default assumption about creativity is that it's the result of serendipitous exchanges, of brainstorming, of ideas building on each other rapidly and spontaneously--not a result of hard thinking that requires serious concentration."
On Gchat, potential for brainstorm is at the tip of our fingers, but it's more than likely stifling our creativity. According to several studies, brainstorming--just like multitasking--can often impair our work. Jonah Lehrer has written about "the brainstorming myth," or the supposedly misconstrued belief that groupthink produces a higher number of higher quality ideas. Lehrer cites a 1958 study performed at
Yale that concluded working in groups on a single project hinders, not fosters, the creative process. The study found students who thought on their own conceived nearly twice as many solutions to a series of creative puzzles than did those working in brainstorming groups. "Brainstorming didn't unleash the potential of the group, but rather made each individual less creative," he wrote.
Access to those we trust for good ideas and insight might make us less trustworthy of our own intuition.
"You begin to doubt your own ability to have opinions," Smouse says, especially when you form a habit of talking to a person or a group of people throughout the work week. "You lose that connection with your gut intuition." This makes us co-dependent and fearful of "pulling the trigger" on an idea or project without first checking with an entrusted Gchat pal. And worse, waiting for that approval will waste time (because, you know, your co-worker could be in the bathroom when ask them to take a look).
Gchat Makes Our Relationships Feel Really Unfulfilling
It happens all-too fast: You add your new beau on Gchat, and start chatting from nine-to-five. You debate over lunch spots, talk happy hour plans and vent about the pain of working for a tyrannical supervisor. The days fly by, at first, but the circular conversations can quickly feel confining and inadequate. This day-long chatting poses the illusion that you've shared moments and have been in touch, but those experiences are anything but quality. "You feel like you've spent all day together, but there's no intimacy," Smouse says. When you're in constant, through-the-screen contact, you rob yourself of experiencing the "I miss you" feeling that helps sustain positive relationships.
You're also missing the superior health benefits of physical contact. Hand-holding, hugs and not-so-cyber sex all contribute to decreased anxiety and stress. As Smouse puts it, "Nothing will ever replace that face-to-face, one-on-one, communication."
Your partner may be your best sounding board in real life, but the game changes when the conversation happens online. Something negative occurs in the office, and you react instantly by typing the scene to your buddy. Now you've relinquished the opportunity to process how you really feel about the experience, and the opportunity to be mindful about it. Your Gchat may perpetuate a problem (because you're constantly talking about it) that may have been fleeting had you carried on with what you were being paid to do with your time at work. Even if the issue is not work-related, thoughts that go from brain to Gchat haven't had time to incubate. "When you're connected all the time, nobody gets the chance to process their own stuff," Smouse says.
That constant, sustained communication with your significant other can actually be unhealthy. "The way to keep your relationship healthy is to respect each other's boundaries," says Smouse. And work is one of those boundaries. The incessant, online diatribe with your partner (or even best friend) makes it tough to know which hat you're wearing and when. (Are you someone's honey bunny or someone's boss right now?) You should be able to feel that when work ends, you're actually disconnected from it, so you can connect with your partner.
And lastly, miscommunication is inevitable when you chat online. It's not just feeling upset from a lag time in response. There are no facial cues, vocal inflections that suggest sarcasm or eye contact to value the conversation you're sharing. And there's nowhere to hide--there's no time to be alone. "If you have a disagreement of sorts, there's no chance to cool off--you feel pressured to resolve something that might need more time," Smouse says. Being in constant connection online pressures us to wear a mask of perfection, and to always be available. Neither are sustainable.
OK, Yes. Gchat Can Be Functional--If You Use It Right.
Gchat can crush your work ethic, waste your time and lead to relationships faux pas, but the takeaway should not be to swear off of it forever--though you might benefit from a little detox. Its flaws really point to our misuse of the technology. As Pang writes, "none of these things are baked into the technology, nor do we HAVE to use them this way." When you decide to incorporate mindfulness into your use of amenities like Gchat, they can often be valuable tools in ways beyond their intended functionality.
If you find yourself choosing to be distracted by social mediums like Facebook, Twitter and Gchat, you might consider why. "Gchat might be a good signal that you're avoiding something you're supposed to be doing," Bolt says, "so use it as a reminder that you need to get back to work." Are you putting a hard task off because it's overwhelming or you're not passionate about it? Maybe Gchat, then, is used as a cue to reassess your work and how you can make it more meaningful. And the talk toolcan be an efficient way to extract information, as long as you remember to value your time and that of the person you're talking with.
"There are times when it can be a lot more efficient to ask the person who knows the answer to a question, than to hunt around the corporate intranet or two-year-old crowd-sourced FAQ for the answer," Pang writes. "However, we need to just do that judiciously, be mindful that your convenience may come at someone else's expense, and do it only when necessary."
And of course, the instant messaging tool is also a convenient way to share helpful information--like how being on Gchat is ruining your life. Here's the link to pass along to anyone in the green on your buddy list.
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