Perhaps we would all be more efficient if we multitasked less and focused on individual tasks more.
Like most of us these days, I've grown used to multitasking. In my case this involves writing articles while answering telephone calls and handling email. Perhaps I'd be more efficient if I multitasked less and focused on individual tasks more.
As you may recall from my Welcome to the Pleasure Dome blog, when I'm ensconced in my command chair I'm surrounded by a wall of screens. Two of these screens are predominantly devoted to displaying the status of my two main email accounts. I typically receive a couple of hundred emails a day, so there is a steady stream of bing! sounds indicating new arrivals.
On the one hand I pride myself in answering incoming emails as quickly as possible, and also to responding to anyone who emails me, even if the answer is "No, I'm terribly sorry that I can’t do your student project for you." (LOL!) On the other hand, every time I glance away from whatever writing project I'm working on to look at what just binged, it takes me a few seconds to regain my train of thought, even if I decide that particular email can wait until later. Things are worse if I decide to respond to an email, because it can take at least a minute to regain my stride with regard to my main project.
Interestingly enough, my chum Jay just emailed me a link to "An Empirical Study of Work Without Email." The creators of this study cut off email usage on five workdays for 13 information workers in an organization.
During the course of the study, the researchers observed and classified a total of 5,643 activities carried out by the 13 participants. They recorded millions of sensor readings, including things like window changes on computer screens and the heart rates of the subjects, during more than 700 hours of data collection. This data collection encompassed both the baseline condition (with email) and the no-email state.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the study revealed that, when without email, the participants multitasked less, focused longer on the tasks at hand, and experienced lower stress. (It wasn't all good news, because some of the participants reported feeling a sense of being "cut off" from their colleagues.)
Now that I think about it, I realize that having my email systems up all of the time is actually putting me under some amount of stress. There have been numerous bings while writing this column, for example. Many of these, upon inspection, I've subsequently realized lack importance (especially in the case of spam). Some have caused me to utter words of which my mother would certainly not approve.
Thus, for the remainder of this week, I am going to perform an experiment on myself. (I'm a professional. Don’t try this at home without medical supervision.) I'm going to power-up my email systems only three times a day -- once when I first come in in the morning, once in the early afternoon, and once just before I head out of the door in the evening. The idea is to see if I feel as though I'm being more productive and under less stress.
Actually, I just took a moment to close down both of my email systems. I have to say that I feel under less stress already. I shall report back further at the end of the week. In the meantime, what are your thoughts on this?
— Max Maxfield, Editor of All Things Fun & Interesting