Here’s the thing. We have a prehistoric brain living in a digital age. Our brains are hardwired to be distracted.
Wendy Cole, the iMaster of Productivity in the Age of Distraction, tells us what we can do to overcome email distractions and the lure to multitask. Here are seven killer ways to stay out of your inbox:
- Turn off new message alerts. Turning off new message alerts in your email program is the first step to minimising email distractions. If you do nothing else, do this!
- Completely close your email program. If your task at hand doesn’t require you to review emails, tasks or calendar – remove all of these distractions by closing your email program. Whilst you are at it, turn your mobile to flight mode, or at least turn it to silent and keep it out of sight.
- Work offline. You can still compose and send emails while working in offline mode, however you’ll only receive new mail when you hit the send-receive button. I always turn to offline mode when I process my emails – that way you can empty your inbox before new emails arrive.
- Use a to-do list that is NOT your inbox. Don’t leave emails in your inbox as prompts to get things done. Not only are tasks highly difficult to prioritise using this method, the surrounding clutter can be very distracting. If you use Outlook then use its Tasks feature as your to-do list.
- OHIO. The ‘only handle it once’ (OHIO) discipline creates the habit of reading each email once and immediately organising what needs to be done with it. The 4Ds of decision making (delete, do it now, delegate or defer) provides a great framework for processing emails.
- Process emails at specific times of the day. The optimum daily number of times to process your emails is dependent on the nature of your work, but four times per day works well for most people. Try scheduling this in the morning, just before lunch, mid-afternoon and before finishing for the day.
- Keep a log. Email is addictive! Keeping a log to see just how much time I spent looking at my inbox gave me the data to prove that when I checked my email less often and more intentionally, I saved time.
From an evolutionary perspective, being distracted by subtle sights and sounds in our periphery served us well; 10,000 years ago when we were collecting berries in the Savannah, it was imperative to notice the rustles in the bushes, alerting us to a potential threat.
But did you know that once distracted, it can take between 15-25 minutes to return our thinking to where it was before we were interrupted? In the modern working environment your email inbox is one of the most inefficient communication channels because it is distracting, decreases productivity and encourages multitasking. And, once our chain of thought is broken, we are more likely to seek further distraction, such as opening another email and the cycle of being distracted continues…
While our brains are still processing distractions in the same way as our ancient ancestors, now instead of a rustle in the bushes, the distractions are the pings, dings and popups associated with email alerts. Noticing the distractions is no longer saving our lives: it’s breaking our focus, leading to multitasking and creating increased inefficiencies.
To make matters worse, email (like text messages, chat apps and all forms of electronic communication) has an addictive element. Brain scans show that dopamine is released when we notice a new message. Because of the dopamine, our brains actively want to seek out new messages. This explains why when we notice a new email or smartphone alert, we lose focus from the work we were doing and open that new message.
Try the 7 steps to a better email management and find a whole new way of managing your day.
What steps have you implemented to be more productive and less distracted in your world @work?