We’re all beginning to learn and accept that multitasking is indeed a myth. Changing our multitasking behavior will lead to greater productivity, but it will also take time. Email may be the right place to begin.
Dave Crenshaw, author of “The Myth of Multitasking: How ‘Doing It All’ Gets Nothing Done,” argues that the most common kind of multitasking doesn’t boost productivity—it actually slows you down. While background tasking like watching television while you work out can be fine, what he calls “switchtasking” is trying to juggle two tasks by refocusing your attention back and forth between them, and losing time and progress in the switch.
I contend email is the biggest distraction and the thing we try to multitask with the most.
In 2006 more than 6 trillion email messages were reportedly sent everyday. Last year that increased to an average of 160 messages per day per office worker. More than 88 percent of these messages were considered junk—spam, commercial newsletters or other unsolicited messages. And though filters can help reduce the junk, email still consumes way too much of our time.
Two things may help: 1) reduce the number of email messages you send and reply to, and 2) read email less frequently.
I wrote in an earlier post that email messages can easily work against you in conveying information. What may seem entirely clear to you when you write and send a message, can be totally misunderstood or misinterpreted by the receiver. This is due to limitations of the written word as well as other factors.
You can find lots of advice on the web with regard to email etiquette and advice on when and when not to use email.
Jim Gerace, who was earlier vice president of corporate communications at Verizon Wireless, issued employee guidelines on the proper use of email. I think the most important are:
- Email should bring closure to work, not create more work.
- Before you write an email, ask yourself if calling or visiting the recipient will bring better communication.
- Keep emails short. Pretend that the recipient isn’t going to open the email and you need to make your point in just the subject line or the space in the preview pane.
- If just one person needs information or clarification, don’t send it to a group.
- Stay accountable. Sending an email doesn’t transfer responsibility.
- Don’t send another email asking why you didn’t get an answer to the first one; call or visit the person you need information from.
- Don’t spend more than five minutes dealing with an email. When you go over this limit, stop and make a phone call.
Timothy Ferriss, in his best-selling book “The 4-Hour Workweek,” recommends looking at email only twice a day in order to focus on the job at hand. He does the same with phone calls so he can focus on getting things done rather than constantly losing time and productivity through what Crenshaw calls switchtasking.
Ferriss ensures senders and callers all know his unavailability because he adds this to his signature on his email messages as well as his voice mail message.
Not everyone can follow this advice, but I suspect most of us probably can and should. Simply turning off the sound and pop-ups for when a new email message arrives may better enable us to stay focused on our task.
What about you? Do you measure your day by how many email messages you receive? If you made the choice to no longer be ruled by your inbox, would you be more productive?