A friend pointed to this brief article in Business Week from 12 June 2008, May We Have Your Attention, Please? by Maggie Jackson.
It's official: The average knowledge worker has the attention span of a sparrow. Roughly once every three minutes, typical cubicle dwellers set aside whatever they're doing and start something else—anything else. It could be answering the phone, checking e-mail, responding to an instant message, clicking over to YouTube (GOOG), or posting something amusing on Facebook. Constant interruptions are the Achilles' heel of the information economy in the U.S. These distractions consume as much as 28% of the average U.S. worker's day, including recovery time, and sap productivity to the tune of $650 billion a year, according to Basex, a business research company in New York City.
I was tempted to excise some of the numbers in there, because I am not sure I believe them. (The usual comment about if they weren't "being distracted" what would they be doing instead.)
The article highlights a couple of technical advances that attempt to gauge the attention state of the user and decide whether they can be interrupted. One is a prototype email prioritization tool from Microsoft, and the other is layer on top of IM to help gauge when a user is available for IM.
I will hark back to my favorite comment here. If you and your colleagues are overwhelmed with information you send each other, STOP DOING IT. Luis Suarez has told us how to remove email from your daily work habits. We also need to figure out how to do the simple things, like share useful information without burying it in your filing system or throwing megabytes at your entire mailing list. Technology isn't going to fix the problem of information overload: we need to help each other.