A life less loaded

To be productive in today's connected world needs iron self-discipline and an elephantine memory. Or we could just turn the stuff off

IT isn't working, says a report. Instead of making us more productive, it's distracting us to death. Is this true?

To start: a phone on the desk and one in the pocket, with the pocket phone also able to deliver texts. Then there are two or three IM clients on the PC, and the email system — coupled to that email, any number of mailing lists and other automated 'productivity tools' which send mindless messages at the least provocation.

To continue: an operating system and applications that spawn overlapping windows, burying the real work several layers deep, in the middle of a long list of near-identical processes. If you switch to a new task, however trivial, there is little chance of getting back to where you were without being further distracted by other tasks you encounter on the way. And if any of those tasks lead you into the world wide valley of temptation — the road to hell is paved with hypertext links.

To finish: it's late, you want to get home, you're trying to shut down the computer and forgotten task after forgotten task surfaces from the computer's subconscious. Do you want to save Document 18, or is it safe to abandon it? Think quickly — you have ten seconds before Windows nukes the editor.

It is a miracle that we get any work done at all. There are some technical fixes we can make: studies show that if you don't have to lose the window you're working on to cope with a distraction, you normally resume work. It's when you have to dig down to find it that problems occur. Everyone should have acres of screen area. And operating systems that aren't brain dead would help too: even something as simple as ranking windows according to how much recent work had been done in each would make a big difference.

In the end, though, it's up to us. Close down that IM client. Ignore that email. Turn off the mobile phone. Buy a 1980s computer on eBay and run Wordstar on it. Like a domineering dog, all this technology needs to be shown who's boss once in a while — and we need to remind ourselves that we're in charge. IT's a good servant and a bad master, and we let it get the upper hand at our peril.