Email is Killing Productivity, Study Finds

Feb 25, 2013
7 Min Read

I recently had to get rid of my computer keyboard because the Super Glue I spilled on it made it difficult to use. So did the red fingernail polish that covered the letters “L” “I” and “9.” (OK, I don’t use the 9 very much, but still.)

I destroyed the keyboard because I was multitasking.  As much as I try not to, I find myself trying to fix a chipped fingernail while writing a story or gluing my lamp back together while checking my email.

The keyboard before this one was also a mess. The peanut butter toast I ate every morning pretty well gummed up the works when I dropped it, peanut-butter side down more than once. (That’s always the way, isn’t it?)

But I know I’m not alone in constantly trying to multitask as I try to meet all the demands and deadlines in my life.

A study from Apex Performance finds that more than 70% of 300 workers report they get more than 21 emails a day, and more than half say they check their inbox more than 11 times a day. More than one third say they check it every time a new email hits their box.

Louis S. Csoka, the president and founder of Apex, says that such numbers show we’re looking at our email about once every 20 minutes, which also means we’re also being distracted from a task every 20 minutes.

That can be a problem when it takes an average of 15 minutes to get back on track after being pulled away by an email or phone call.  At that rate, you’re only spending about 15 minutes an hour concentrating on one task, he says.

Still, Apex found that 70% of respondents claim their productivity has stayed the same or gotten even better since smartphones and other gadgets came on the scene.

“People believe they’re really productive because they’re doing so many things, but the way the brain is wired, you really can’t,” he says. “Yes, you can physically do many things at one time, but you must be totally immersed and focused to do something well.”

He says people are “deluding” themselves that they can move back and forth between tasks and do a good job, and they’re only increasing their stress.

“As your attention shifts around, you grow frustrated,” he says. “And when people get stressed, their focus narrows so they may actually be less effective.”

Instead, he says, quality work comes from focusing on one thing completely before moving onto the next task. While you can’t get rid of distractions, you can find better ways to direct your attention so that you become more effective and productive.

Csoka suggests:

  • Staying calm. When the emails and instant messages are pinging for your attention and your cellphone is buzzing, take a deep breath. Csoka says he has used biofeedback to learn how to calm himself and “stay in the zone.”  Deep breathing can help you regain your focus and not feel so stressed from the distractions.
  • Take short breaks. Your brain is wired to only focus well for about 45 minutes. When you’ve hit that mark, try to get up and move around. If that’s not possible, lean back in your chair, take a deep breath and look around.
  • Exercise. Vigorous daily exercise can “keep you sharp for hours” and help reduce the buildup of stress.  Even going for a  short walk is helpful, and “few people realize how critical it is to move every day,” he says.  A recent Iowa State University study finds that only 3.5% of Americans age 20 to 59 get the recommended amount of exercise.
  • Block it out.  Csoka says we can learn to ignore distractions. While the sound of your chatting co-workers will still be there every day, with a little practice you can learn to tune them out for longer and longer periods every day. If it’s allowed, use headphones or play music to help mute the sound of distractions, he suggests.

“It’s really quite simple,” he says. “We’re not wired to multitask efficiently. You have to recognize that the more you shift your focus, the more you have to work to get back into what you were doing. Don’t try to do things simultaneously. That’s silly.”

My keyboard graveyard proves it.

What are some things you do to stay on task or deal with email overload?


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