The information we are confronted with on a daily basis has grown exponentially in recent decades with the increase and availability of technology. The internet is an infinite source of distraction, and smartphones have made the allure of information available anytime, anywhere.
Amid this constant surge of information, attention and focus has become our most precious assets. With a world that is now filled with constant distraction, attention is our competitive advantage. Look at each day as a challenge and an opportunity to keep your eye on the prize. But you must first know your desires and the goals that you want to achieve.
The Multitasking Myth
Studies have shown that the human mind can only truly multitask when it comes to highly automatic or unconscious behaviors like walking. For activities that require conscious attention, there really is no such thing as multitasking, only task switching – the process of your mind moving back and forth between different demands.
It can feel as if we are super efficient doing two or more things at once. In reality, you are just doing one thing, then another, then back again with significantly less skill and accuracy than if you had simply focused on one job, one project or one task at a time.
Take the example of reading. Where we once might have spent a few hours with a book and then wanted to connect with friends, tools like instant messenger or texting offer the possibility of doing both at once. Recent studies show that people take about 25% longer to read a passage if they are texting compared with others who simply read. The end result of any kind of multitasking is performance quality suffers and all activities take longer.
Understanding our Habits
Most people like me have a really bad habit of checking e-mail first thing in the morning. And for many the morning is the most productive time of the day. E-mail is very, very tempting, so they basically sacrifice their productive time for e-mail.
The second issue is that in doing things, we like to feel that we are making progress. So if you get to delete 10 e-mails from your inbox, you feel that you have achieved something. I am guilty again here. But if you think carefully about it, are you really getting something out of deleting those e-mails? Is there a true return on investment of the amount of time it takes to read and delete those e-mails especially when there are higher priorities?
The next thing working against us is the calendar. It has the tendency to represent tasks that can fit in 30 minute or 1 hour blocks. And tasks that take longer such as 40 minutes or 45 hours for a project don’t naturally get represented in that calendar.
Then there is the opportunity cost. With money, opportunity cost is the fact that every time you spend $5 on a latte; you are not going to spend it on something else. With time, there is also an opportunity cost. Every time you are doing something you are not doing something else. But you don’t really see what it is that you’re giving up. Especially when it comes to, e-mail versus doing something that takes 50 hours. You can see e-mail, but not the project.
Some of you may remember from your school days that psychologist B.F. Skinner came up with the idea of random reinforcement. This is where a rat is given a lever and every 100 times it presses the lever a piece of food is distributed. For the rat, this is exciting. But if the number is a random number between 1 and 100 it ends up being more exciting, which causes the rat to work even harder.
E-mail and social networks are a great example of random reinforcement. Usually when we pull the lever to check our e-mail it is not that interesting especially with all the spam many of us receive. But, from time to time, it’s exciting. And that excitement, which happens at random intervals, keeps us coming back to check our e-mail all the time.
So, if your e-mail is running and you see or hear the bell that is telling you a message is waiting, that’s going to be very hard to resist. In your mind you’ll keep thinking about what exciting things are waiting for you. If you never opened your e-mail you would do much better. It would probably be best if managers at companies asked that e-mail not be distributed between 8 and 11 am each day. Productivity would be maximized.
Most of us want to see and feel we are making progress as we work on a project or problem. If for example, you answered a 100 e-mails today, you probably thought you were productive. In doing so, those e-mails you responded to were visible as was your answer. But, were you really productive? Did you focus on and accomplish what was most important and beneficial?
When you are thinking about the solution for a difficult problem, you don’t see the visible progression such as working on a problem for 5 hours and then in the last 30 minutes you come up with the answer. Were the first 4 ½ hours a waste? How can you see or feel as if you’re making progress? Perhaps tracking specific progress points or documenting what you are doing and feeling might help to bring visibility to the process.
Inbox zero. Sounds great doesn’t it? A recent study by McKinsey Global found the average knowledge worker spends 28% of his work week either writing, reading or responding to e-mail and texts. As a result, many of us are on a permanent mission to reduce e-mail/text workload.
E-mail and texting has become our primary input/output mechanism for conversation, ideas, reminders, information events, videos, images and documents. E-mail is a digital extension of our brain and of course social media and mobile have drawn a lot of this attention. The issue is that our digital selves can handle more input than our physical selves. And we are going to need to solve this issue for ourselves as it can and may only get worse.
There are many ways to better manage our digital in-boxes. The 3 key steps are:
- Identify your major goals (2-3) for the next month or few months
- Connect the dots – Review your e-mails/messages as they relate to your goals. With this in mind you can label, file, forward, respond and archive with a sense of purpose and eye on the long term.
- Let things go – Your inbox is a treasure trove of possibilities. To a creative mind, that’s enticing. It’s easy for an optimist to keep 50, 100, or even 1000 e-mails hovering in their inbox in the hopes that, someday soon, they’ll get the chance to give each opportunity the precious time it deserves. Let the e-mails go that are not helping you to pursue your goals. I know it is easier said than done, but how often do you really go back over those e-mails? It is like old clothes in your closet. If you haven’t worn it in the last year, get rid of it.
Other e-mail solutions include:
- Label your e-mails for faster retrieval
- Set up rules so it can sort itself
- Archive all your e-mails
- Color code your e-mail for visual cues
- Use a reminder tool
- Convert e-mail into tasks
- Create e-mail templates
- Unsubscribe from excess newsletters
Identifying and Reducing Distraction for Ultimate Satisfaction Technology even with its’ benefits has become a distraction and more importantly an intrusion into our personal and creative time. The gym and park are no longer places for personal development or reflection, but another place to check in. You see people at dinner in a restaurant looking at their phones rather than talking to each other. Today, I saw a woman at church during service looking at her e-mail and text messages. Self-respect and etiquette are being nudged out of our lives in lieu of digital connection.
Even work spills into our personal lives. The crux of the problem is we are losing the distinction between urgent and important and now everything gets heaped into the urgent pile. We quickly set aside our own concerns to attend to those of others, which at times is fine. This busy work pulls our attention from the meaningful work, taking time to reflect, think and imagine.
Many of us have become so trusting of technology that we have lost faith in ourselves. There are still parts of life we do not need to better with technology. A healthy relationship with technology and your devices is all about taking ownership of your time and making an investment in your life. You have a choice where to direct your attention. Do your best to focus on creating and maintaining a healthy balance for your ultimate satisfaction and enjoyment of work and life.