3 Keys to Overcoming Email Overload - Part 3: Multi-tasking

This is the 5th in a series of blog posts designed to help you recognise the profound and far-reaching impact email overload has in your life and to offer solutions to help you overcome the challenges it presents.

There are 7 Critical Impacts of Information & Email Overload (get the free Special Report here)

Impact #3:  Multi-tasking

Having so much information available to us and much of it arriving unbidden as interruptions, we now work in a constant state of multi-tasking.

The modern, mostly open plan, business environment invites distractions, explains Maggie Jackson, author of "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age." She writes that

"Knowledge workers are overloaded because they often work in a noisy, cluttered, harried environment and because they are fragmenting their attention all day long," she said. “Finding time for deep focus is nearly impossible when you’re bouncing from task to task while instant messaging”.

In the twenty-first century, we take it for granted that our lives will be constantly interrupted by e-mails, instant messages, and mobile phone calls. But new research is showing that the fast-paced, multitasking lifestyle may actually be hampering our productivity rather than enhancing it.

The New York Times has an interesting article highlighting some of this research.

"Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes,"

David E. Meyer, a cognitive scientist and director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan said in an interview with the New York Times

The NYT then showed confirmation of these findings by Microsoft research scientist Eric Horvitz, who found that workers at the software company took an average of 15 minutes to return to the task they were working on after being interrupted by a phone call, e-mail, or instant message. "I was surprised by how easily people were distracted and how long it took them to get back to the task," Horvitz said.

The problem lies in thinking that human brains work in a similar fashion to a computer. On any typical PC, the operating system can quickly jump back and forth between running tasks by saving any important task information; something modern processors can do in mere nanoseconds.

The human brain, however, does not context-switch in the same way. We keep an inordinately large amount of information in our heads at one time, but not all of it is quickly accessible. The more complicated the task being performed, the more information has been moved into immediate storage, but this requires an intense concentration that can be easily broken.

Multi-tasking is a myth

Multitasking can give us the illusion that we are very productive and smart. But since we can truly only focus on one thing at a time, multitasking forces us to do extra processing due to the cost of ‘context switching’ (the time it takes to switch our minds when we move from one task to another).

As Timothy Ferriss says “

“There is a psychological switching of gears that can require up to 45 minutes to resume a major task that has been interrupted. More than a quarter of each 9-5 period (28%, or 134.4 minutes) is consumed by such interruptions and 40% of people interrupted go on to a new task without finishing the one that was interrupted. This is how we end up with twenty windows open on our computers and nothing completed at 5pm.”

Author Maggie Jackson warns that the cumulative effect of new technologies is that we may be losing our ability to maintain attention more generally. Attention requires focus, awareness and what she calls executive attention.

"Relying on multitasking as a way of life, we chop up our opportunities and abilities to make big-picture sense of the world and pursue our long-term goals," she writes. "The way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention – the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress."

Ms. Jackson concludes that "as we plunge into a new world of infinitely connectible and accessible information, we risk losing our means and ability to go beneath the surface, to think deeply."

Bill McKibben, the great environmentalist said

“I feel that much of my life is ebbing away in the tide of minute-by-minute distraction . . . I’m not certain what the effect on the world will be. But psychologists do say that intense close engagement with things does provide the most human satisfaction.”

McKibben describes himself as “loving novelty” and yet “craving depth”, which is our contemporary predicament in a nutshell isn’t it?

So, what can do you about it?

As Timothy Ferriss says

“Multi-tasking is dead. It never worked and it never will. Intelligent people love to sing its praises because it gives them permission to avoid the much more challenging alternative: focusing on one thing.”

Here are some tips to help you avoid ‘multi-tasking’ your email.

Firstly, make the deliberate decision that you will ‘single task’ email rather than ‘multi-task’ it when it arrives as an interruption. In fact, these days so much of your important work comes through the email channel that it’s critical you are able to fully focus on it and make good quality decisions and actions on it. But how do you single-task email? It’s called ‘batching’. Ferriss says

“Batching is scheduling the completion of time-consuming but necessary tasks [like email] at set times, as infrequently as possible, between which we let them accumulate”.

Best Practice for most people in most situations is 4 scheduled times per day. Even those in highly responsive or customer service roles should only check email at designated intervals but with shorter gaps. If you're an addict, you could try checking in at the 15 & 45 mins mark of each hour (16 times per day). Then wean yourself to once per hour (8 times a day) and so on. The ultimate is, as Ferris says,

“twice per day, once at 12 noon or just prior to lunch, and again at 4pm. 12pm and 4pm are times that ensure you will have the most responses from previously sent email. Never check email first thing in the morning”.

Once you're in control of WHEN you will check email, you can turn off alerts and be blissfully ignorant of WHEN email is arriving as you know exactly when you will be getting to it. Meanwhile you can stay highly focused on your real work (much of it that probably arrived via email yesterday).

Then, at the designated time, check your email and be highly focused on making a quality decision and response to each of them.

The next blog post will look at the impact of the poor decision-making and mistakes that result from being overloaded with email.

  All the best!