Task management and computer distractions

Who remembers Clippy (or Clipit)? The MS Office help assistant that most of us immediately turned off. It constantly tried to help us with writing a document but it did the exact opposite. It often distracted us in out thoughts. Do you think those days are over? Not really. Do you notice the red underlined words while writing some text? Right now it will underline the WORNG word I just typed in. Is it distracting? Of course it is (at least to a certain degree). To most of us it urges the need to correct the spelling mistake. But almost every software application now days underlines the misspelled words for us. Just to think of few I use myself: text editor(s), spreadsheet application, web browser, email client, presentations application …

If underlined misspelled words grab our attention, what about pop-up cloudlets of all kinds: new email, software updates, potential threats of viruses and other malware, new IM chats … These are real distractions! They often interrupt current task we perform and trigger new tasks and a new ones and a new ones. How do I know? I was just reading a book and a glance at the computer screen revealed that there were new unread messages in RSS client (a nice red circle over the RSS client icon). Among these news was this comic from Pearls Before Swine:

Let’s examine Rat’s situation:

  • task 1: he starts with a resume
  • task 2: reads email (pop up cloudlet is a trigger)
  • task 3: watches the video (a link in the email is a trigger)
  • task 4: watches more videos of the same show (a list of similar videos on the web site is a trigger)
  • task 5: checks up the wikipedia for that show (a series of videos and some curiosity are triggers)
  • task 6: finds more photos of a girl in a search engine (wikipedia’s wrong article and Rat’s taste are triggers)
  • task 7: posts photos on facebook (a Rat’s taste and his need to share info are triggers)
  • task 8: checks up some details of a person who requested to be his friend on FB (a pop up is a trigger)
  • task 9: writes a blog entry (this person’s details and his need to share info are triggers for this one)
  • task 10: googles himself to see how internet portraits him …. not completed as he returns to the first task
  • task 11: … 

How many of us have found ourself in a similar situation? I should return to my book now.

Edit 25.4.2010: I completely forgot to mention sound distractions. Aren’t they even worse than visual distractions? Most of distractions are not even really important (most of them are just informative – "FYI i updated this software" – and who cares!)