On Digitalisation and Fragmentation of Time

Diane Golay and Åsa Cajander did a presentation on Fragmentation of Time and Digitalisation for the Uppsala University Academic Senate this fall. This blog post captures some of what we said in the presentation.  Enjoy!

Digitalisation of work sometimes has the unintended side effect that it fragments our time. Fragmentation commonly refers to the separation of activities into many discrete pieces. It is usually calculated based on two different aspects: the length of continuous work episodes, and the number of interruptions. In those terms, fragmented work is characterized  by short work tasks and frequent interruptions, as opposed to a work rhythm made of few but long work episodes with no or few interruptions.

Several studies have pointed to the increasing fragmentation of our work.  For instance, a 2009 study found that people switched tasks about every 12 minutes. Two years later, another study found that a modern worker’s day comprised an average of 88 work episodes, most of which (90%) lasted for 10 minutes or less. The found average duration for those work episodes was of just under three minutes.

Work fragmentation is related to a perceived increase in work pace and work intensity. It is also detrimental to the actual work taking place. The causes of fragmentation can be both external, such as a phone call or a computer that stops working, or internal, i.e. self-initiated, such as looking up an information on the web while working on a report.

External interruptions have a particularly negative effect on work. A context switch requires cognitive overhead, and context- switching is related to time costs. Concrete negative consequences of external interruptions include errors, stress, work delay, difficulty resuming the interrupted task, and increased user frustration. Interruptions are however not always negative: inquiries, breaks, and adjustments can facilitate the primary task by providing valuable information or creating an environment that encourages increased productivity. Context plays a significant role in determining whether interruptions are considered to be beneficial or detrimental. In general, interruptions that occur outside of one’s current working sphere context are disruptive as they lead one to (sometimes radically) shift their thinking. In contrast, interruptions that concern one’s current working sphere are considered helpful.

However, it should be noted that fragmentation is also a natural part of our work. Work tasks are to a small or high degree woven together and fragmented in complex patterns. Workers seldom work with one task at the time. Interruptions are a to some extent also a natural part of our work. Breaks are for example crucial for collaboration and learning.

So we should not aim for a fully continuous workflow, but might want to try and reduce external and internal interruptions that are not related to the task(s) at hand. Finding an amount of fragmentation that works for us will enable us to boost our work performance, reduce our cognitive workload, and simply make us feel better at and about our work.

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[1] Jin, J., & Dabbish, L. A. (2009). Self-interruption on the computer. Proceedings of the 27th International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – CHI 09, 1799. https://doi.org/10.1145/1518701.1518979

[2] Wajcman, J., & Rose, E. (2011). Constant connectivity: Rethinking interruptions at work. Organization Studies, 32(7), 941–961. https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840611410829

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