I walk to my cubicle, say hello to my neighbor and while making some inane comment about coffee in the morning , I notice my voice mail blinking. I log on to my machine and at the same time have my phone to my ear. While the PC is logging me on, I type in the voice mail password. My email is up and I scan the new ones while listening to my voice mail. Messages pop up on IM – Are we really having the portfolio planning meeting today? I notice an email that I think that needs immediate attention ; The cell phone buzzes – my boss needs some updates.
Busy – No. This is an Tech Manager on a regular day . Actually pretty normal in the corporate world of today.
Both at work and home, in today’s world of information overload and attention grabbing devices, we multi-task and task switch constantly. Research has over and again proven that constant multi-tasking is not efficient . It takes time for our mind to switch gears from one task to other. And typically quality suffers. To be clear, there are some tasks we are or become so proficient at, that we can do them without thinking, almost in some kind of auto mode – for instance, walking and chewing gum at the same time. I have also heard of accomplished surgeons who can talk about baseball or their new favorite restaurant while sealing the abdomen wall and fixing the hernia flawlessly. But in our regular world, the previous example is an exception not the rule.
I believe one of the primary factors is our own need to feel productive and more importantly on top of things. We feel a need to check email every time the alert messages prop up and glance at the feeds coming in via the RSS feeds. How many meetings have we attended with folks busy on laptops or thumbing messages on the crackberry? Juggling tasks gives one an illusion of being productive. There are also some practical reasons. The workplace of today is really interruption driven. It is normal to be working on a presentation deck and to be interrupted by an urgent client email or a team-member who needs direction.
In the end, as with most of the things, it comes down to balance – juggle things but stay sane. One of the practical tips I read about (I think it was from Tim Ferriss’ blog (author of the 2 hour week) – Time Ferriss Blog ) was to check emails only periodically. You chose the period based on your work patterns. I do it once every 1-2 hours during regular working hours. Once I do that, I resist temptation to check in-between (it is hard!) even if the “you have mail” alert comes up.