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Monday, April 11, 2011

The Email of Damocles

Dionysius, who had seized power in the city of Syracuse, overheard the young man Damocles envying his good fortune. "Very well," said the ruler. "If you think my position is so enviable, you may change places with me for a day."

          As Damocles sat feasting in the palace, he happened to glance upward and was horrified to see a sharp sword hanging above him by a single thread. "Are you surprised?" said Dionysius. "I came to power by violence, and I have many enemies. Every day that I rule this city, my life is in as much danger as yours is at this moment." –Cicero, 60bc

Consider an individual at a computer keyboard. Typing a document at length will result in the sustained use of the musculature from one’s hand to one’s back, and a feeling of fatigue and pain will be caused by the overuse or stress caused by using the musculature. The cure of course is to taking intermittent breaks from typing. In this case, demand did not cause one’s muscles to give out, but rather the demand to perform in a certain way. Thus the ‘repetitive stresses’ that cause muscular fatigue and pain are minimized by regulating how we perform a task, and not by controlling what that task is.

Now consider an individual who is rapidly switching between two or more incompatible tasks. This multi-tasking again correlates with muscular tension, fatigue, and pain[i]. The obvious solution is to refrain from excessive task switching and to perform one task at a time, undistracted by competing choices. An implicit assumption underscoring this opinion is that the stress induced by multi-tasking represents a reaction akin to fear that engages an adrenaline fueled reaction for fight or flight. The second assumption is that task switching itself causes stress. That is, because stress occurs while you are task switching, therefore it occurs because of task switching.

Unfortunately the experimental data belie both of these conclusions. For demands that result in task switching, increased muscular tension is the correlating response, and if sustained results in muscular exhaustion and pain. Representing the debilitating effects of sustained (even slight) tension, this ‘Cinderella effect’ [ii] [iii] [iv] is precisely the same effect that afflicts our computer typist, and moves the cause of stress to specific and easy to observe neuro-muscular events. Secondly, neuro-muscular activation does not follow task switching, but the anticipation of task switching. Again the supporting data are unequivocal. For the literature of ‘choice-choice’ behavior from the animal experiments performed by Neal Miller[v] in the 1950’s to the experiments on choice behavior on humans conducted in the 90’s by Antonio Damasio[vi], tension and anxiety occur as a precursor to choice, and act to influence choice itself.

The implications of this are striking. Primarily, the reduction of multi-tasking would become a half solution for on the job stress. Instead of reducing multi-tasking, one must eliminate the anticipation of multi-tasking even if multitasking never occurs. This may be illustrated by adapting an age old story. Say for example your Uncle Damocles arrives for evening dinner. A talkative and irritating sort, you decide to hang a sword above his head held in place by a hair. As the dinner progresses, Damocles will have to consider from moment to moment the decision to stay at the dinner table and risk a bout of sword swallowing, or leave the table and miss swallowing dessert. Now put Damocles in a business office, and give him access to an always available internet, and the anticipated and continuous dilemmas of checking email versus working will likely occur, and result in tension and stress. Whether he switches often or infrequently between tasks is immaterial, as it is only his anticipation of making moment to moment choice that matters. Add to this the anticipated instant messages from the boss, and of co-workers dropping by your office to chat about irrelevant topics, and you can see how you become not a model of efficiency, but a ‘harried housewife’ who is on edge because she doesn’t know where the next distraction is going to come from. Ultimately, we cannot escape the pressures of life, where we have to anticipate performing multiple tasks despite our best intentions, but we can control anticipating the inadvertent and unnecessary interruptions that in this ever connected world stress us out. Put in other words, in the world of the internet, by turning your connections off, you can adjust your seat and remove the sword dangling above your head.

[i] Mark, G., Gonzalez, V., and Harris, J. No Task Left Behind? Examining the Nature of Fragmented Work. Proceedings of CHI’05, (2005), 113-120
[ii] Wursted, M., Eken, T., & Westgaard, R. (1996) Activity of single motor units in attention demanding tasks: firing pattern in the human trapezius muscle. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 72, 323-329
[iii] Wursted, M., Bjorklund, R., & Westgaard, R. (1991) Shoulder muscle tension induced by two VDU-based tasks of different complexity. Ergonomics, 23, 1033-1046
[iv] Hagg, G. (1991) Static Work loads and occupational myalgia- a new explanation model. In P. A. Anderson, D. J. Hobart, and J. V. Danhoff (Eds.). Electromyographical Kinesiology (pp. 141-144). Elsevier Science Publishers, P. V.
[v] Miller, N. (1992) Studies of fear as an acquirable drive: I. Fear as motivation and fear-reduction as reinforcement in the learning of new responses. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 121(1):6-11.
[vi]Damasio, A. (1995) Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Avon: New York

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