As a former investment banker, I have a very, well… unique relationship with my email. For those that aren’t familiar with the life of a banking analyst – email is treated as IM, text messaging, and a pager all rolled into one, with a 24/7 expectation of response. I once had an actual nightmare about that blinking red light on my Blackberry. Accordingly, I developed somewhat of a compulsion about checking email at all hours of the day and night, an affliction I feel is shared by many in corporate America. Many of us keep our Outlook open all day and our Blackberries at hand all night, just waiting to be interrupted by that little “New Mail” popup or blinking red light. Not only is that stressful, I think it’s killing our productivity.
A study by Microsoft showed just how lethal interruptions are to productivity. The researchers taped 29 hours of people working in a typical office, and found that they were interrupted on average four times each hour. Sounds like a day at most offices. Here’s the kicker – 40% of the time, the person did not resume the task they were working on before the interruption. The more complex the task, the less likely the person was to resume working on it after an interruption. That means most of us are getting derailed from our work four times each hour, maybe more if you work in a high email traffic office.
So how do we get back on track? The answer lies in a concept called the “Urgent vs. Important Matrix“, which I was reminded of (and inspired to write this post) when I read fellow Coloradan Devin Reams‘ excellent post entitled “Instant Email is Good for Nobody” (agreed). Most of us have grown up considering “urgent” and “important” to be the same thing, but that is not always the case. An issue can be both urgent and important (a heart attack), urgent but not important (a telemarketer is calling), important but not urgent (that big project you’re working on), or neither (surfing the web). As such, we need to develop the ability to quickly identify urgent and important interruptions that need to be dealt with right now, and file the rest away to be dispatched at regular intervals when they will not interrupt us from the tasks we are focused on completing. Be particularly wary of “urgent but not important” tasks – these often masquerade as top priority items and steal attention they don’t deserve.
In Tim Ferriss’ fantastic “4-Hour Workweek” he discusses his method for handling email interruptions. Tim checks email once at 11am and once at 4pm – that’s it. It’s called batching, and it helps not only to reduce interruptions, but also decreases the time spent switching between tasks (28% of your day, according to the Microsoft study).
Since I’ve left banking, I’ve tried to turn over a new leaf in email management. I’m no Tim Ferriss, but I try to only check emails once an hour and I completely turn off the alerts on my iPhone during things like dinner, movies, and social time with friends. Not only has it made me more productive, it’s drastically reduced my stress level. Additionally, people learn that email is not a viable option for getting ahold of me instantly. If something is both urgent and important, I get phone calls, which are totally fine and welcomed. Urgent/important things get personal phone calls or face to face conversations, while non-urgent items get dropped in email boxes for handling at the appropriate time. If you can get everyone in an office or on a team working under this principle, it really does dramatically increase efficiency and decrease stress – I highly recommend it.