You’ve finally gotten all the details of your project together and are ready to write the report.
You have carved out a block of time.
You are in the flow, with the whole picture clear in your mind.
Then you hear a beep that tells you an email has arrived.
- Immediately, you think, “An email! I wonder who it’s from. It could be important.”
- Then comes The Big Lie: “It will only take a second to check it.”
- So you click on your email program and open the email.
- Perhaps you respond.
- Perhaps you click through a link.
- Perhaps, while you are checking that email, you check your other emails and respond to them.
What happened to the big picture?
What happened to your concentration?
And, most importantly, how long will it take you to return to the state of awareness you were in before the fateful moment?
Basex research says that it takes three times as long as the interruption time to return to a previous task. Some say it takes 23.5 minutes to recover from an interruption. But many of us can attest that it could take hours to return to the task with full concentration after abandoning our work for the Siren song of the email alert.
The idea that you can effectively do two things at once is a myth.
As one blogger wrote, “Multitasking: The ability to screw up two tasks at once.” Depending on whom you study, you will find research claiming that multitasking causes a loss of 10 IQ points, a 40% loss in productivity, or a loss of hours of work time per day. In short, it doesn’t work.
Impulsively --- dare I say obsessively? --- checking email pockmarks your day with dozens of interruptions. Every interruption represents a loss of productivity. True, there are other interruptions. A coworker stops by to chat. The phone rings. But checking email is something that you can control.
A Time to Check Email, A Time to Work
- Limit the number of times per day that you check email. Your job might require you to check regularly, but rare is the person who really needs to interrupt everything he or she is doing every five or ten minutes to check email and respond to it.
- Establish blocks of time when you will adamantly not check email. This will make your more effective at your other tasks. During your email blackout periods, I recommend that you disable the auto alert that sets in motion the Pavlovian urge to respond to the little bell. You could even close the email program altogether until you finish your task and rejoin the electronic hordes.
- Multitask less; feel happier. A recent article in Harvard Business Review showed that workers who focus on one task at a time are happier, because they feel satisfied that they have been more productive. People need to vary their tasks; spending periods working on email can create a welcome break from concentrated work. But trying to concentrate and check email is a blueprint for unproductive unhappiness.
Stake your claim to blocks of email-free work time! Okay. You’ve read this email. Time to get back to work.
© Elizabeth Danziger 2015