The Silicon Valley Voice

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Attention, Please!

Looking for a thought-provoking article on a difficult subject that requires total attention and complete concentration? You’ve come to the wrong column.

What you’ve got here is a mush-minded softball of a column that would not tax the mental acuity of a gnat. And that’s why you’re going to love it!

Yes, I know. You’re always talking about how you crave a challenge. Give you the tough assignments, you insist; you’re not really happy unless you’re busting every brain cell on some workplace mission impossible.

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Or so you say.

Well, you can convince me, you workplace warrior, but don’t try your nonsense on Dr. Gloria Mark. This University of California, Irvine professor knows better, and with a little help from her friends at Microsoft Research, she now has the scientific research to prove that people are happiest when they have an unchallenging assignment, like surfing the web, or responding to email, or reading the latest Lindsay Lohan updates on Facebook.

(Yes, we know all about your Lohan obsession. It’s one of the things about you we like best!)

Personally, I don’t know why the researchers were surprised to find that we like being busy with aimless busywork so much more than actually trying to accomplish something significant. Hey, when it comes to playing online games and going online shopping and just Googling everything that pops into our little pea brains, if we didn’t like it so much, why would we do it so much?

And we do do it.

According to “The Hidden Pleasures of Busywork,” a recent Rachel Emma Silverman article in The Wall Street Journal, Mark’s research has shown that “people are actually happiest on the job doing unchallenging assignments.”

“With rote work, you get a feeling of accomplishment, but you haven’t exerted a lot of mental activity,” Mark says. “It gives you a feeling of fulfillment, but there’s not frustration or stress.”

It makes sense. Especially so, in your case, where there’s not really a lot of mental activity available to exert in the first place. Which brings us to another interesting aspect of Mark’s research — the ebb and flow of focus during the workday.

It turns out that most people are not at their tippy-top best every minute between 9 a.m., when they stagger into work, and 5 p.m., when they stagger out

After studying the work habits of Microsoft workers, Mark and her research team learned that “focus peaks in the mid-afternoon from 2 to 3 p.m., and also rises in late morning, around 11 a.m. after workers have time to gear up.”

The 11 a.m. focus factor makes perfect sense to me. It’s about that time when you start realizing you’ve fiddled through most of the morning, and it’s almost time for lunch. So, yes, at 11 a.m., you’re focused, but what you’re most focused on is whether you’re going to have the triple cheeseburger again, or back off and settle for a giant pizza.

If you think the average Microsoft worker is not as obsessed with lunch as me and thee, Mark also found that “people are most bored early in the afternoon, soon after lunch.”

No surprise there. With the critical lunch decision under your belt, you have nothing else to think about until it’s 5 p.m., when it’s time to start drinking. (This must explain the 2 to 3 p.m. peak. You’re busy surfing the web to find out the latest cool cocktails.)

If you want to discount this research and stick to your story about being fearlessly focused on productive work assignments from morning to night, you will find plenty of ammunition in the design of the study.

For example, only 32 Microsoft workers were studied, and although “the researchers studied them intensely,” none admitted to inventing “Clippy,” the extraordinarily perky animated paperclip helpmate who came attached to Office 97.

What the workers did admit was exactly when they were engaged and challenged, and exactly when they were tuned out and turned off. This information was garnered by “pop-up questionnaires” that appeared on their work screens at random points during the day.

So, if we can’t honor the work effort of the Microsoft employees, we can admire their honesty. And I’m sure every one of the 32 who admitted they were unfocused and unproductive during the day will find wonderfully fulfilling new jobs elsewhere.

And if they can’t, I’m sure they can get a good reference from Clippy.

Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at bob@bgplanning.com.

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