The modern workplace is a frenetic environment. Whether it’s the endless interruptions and distractions, the expectation of immediate response times, or the constant flow of new information to process and manage, many of us struggle to stay in command of our workday.
Of course, according to time management expert Paul Burton, the main “distract-er factor” may surprise you: one of the biggest technology touch points impeding workplace production isn’t social media; it’s email.
MonsterThinking recently caught up with Burton to discuss ways executives and professionals can successfully stay on top of all that comes at them every day, work more efficiently through increased productivity, and overcome the myriad distractions in the modern workplace:
MonsterThinking: Technology has literally transformed the workplace and while we can’t imagine conducting business without a telephone or email, information overload has really impacted our ability to focus. Can technology, specifically email actually be making us more unproductive?
Paul Burton: Definitely. I often tell audiences that e-mail is the boon and the bane of the modern working environment. Though we couldn’t effectively conduct much of our work without it, we have also become Pavlovian in our response to it. People rush to their in-boxes at every opportunity to check their e-mail, fearing that they have missed something of vital importance in the last three minutes they’ve been away!
Worse yet is the new message alerts that constantly sound throughout the day. Whether it’s a computer pinging and flashing a new e-mail preview or a mobile device vibrating, our attention is yanked away from whatever else we’re doing so we can check it.
This self-imposed distraction – conducted in the name of “responsiveness” – is riddling our ability to focus. And it is time spent focused that produces actual results – measurable forward progress on our tasks and projects – so these interruptions are definitely hindering our productivity.
One of my most recurring recommendations to audiences and clients alike is to turn their new message alerts off and to simply regularly check their in-boxes. By making this small change we begin commanding the tool instead of being enslaved to it. This suggestion is often followed by the question: How often should I check my inbox?
The answer is simple: You should check your inbox as regularly as necessarily to effectively triage the most recent batch of e-mails and interleave any new work into the existing work.
MT: How does the confusion between activity and productivity negatively impact individuals and organizations?
PB: We are wired to believe that if we’re moving, we’re producing. This simply isn’t true. In fact, many times the less we’re moving the more we are actually doing.
The average corporate employee gets 100 e-mails a day. So, with the new e-mail alert turned on, that’s 400 seconds of lost time. We work about 240 days a year on average. The aggregate effect is 24 hours of activity with no productivity. That’s three working days. Imagine what it would feel like to have three days of work off your desk right now!
MT: You describe email can either help us become better leaders or prevent us from achieving our goals. How can leaders adapt their behaviors to meet today’s time management challenges?
PB: Leadership is about setting, communicating and effecting direction. E-mail is a communication tool, but it is only a tool and it is only one of many tools that leaders must employ to be successful. It is not the panacea of communication that many people seem to believe it is and it does not alleviate the need for good communication skills.
My recommendations surrounding the use of e-mail are simple:
1. Use e-mail when disseminating information rather than creating ideas. If it’s the latter you need, schedule a real-time event. It won’t just be more efficient, it’ll be more effective because real-time dialog happens at 150 words per minute and allows for partial thoughts to be expounded upon by many where e-mail is unilateral, asynchronous and only occurs at 40 words per minute at best.
2. Craft e-mails in “memo” form, using a good template that provides a summary at the beginning and the details in the body.
3. Remember that e-mail is a black and white communication tool that delivers very little emotion and very, very few of us are the next Hemmingway. Thus, write succinctly, directly and without attempting nuance.
MT: How can we regain control of email as a productivity tool and become better leaders?
PB: There’s no silver bullet; the key to using e-mail effectively and efficiently is remembering that it’s a tool, not a solution. Solutions are what people produce by using tools. I believe e-mail has been one of the tools that facilitated the rapid expansion of the current global playing field.
If we step back from the sense of immediacy that surrounds e-mail and look at the forest for the trees, we’ll realize quickly realize that the notion that we must twitch every time an e-mail comes into our inbox is not sustainable in a 24×7 global world. It’s up to each of us to determine when to leverage the value that this particular tool delivers.
Because, after all, it’s a far better thing to ride the horse than be drug along behind it.