More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Does E-Mail Distract? Not if You Take Charge
November 4, 2007

Q. Reading and answering e-mail is taking up more and more of your time at work. How could this affect your work?

A. There is no doubt that e-mail, with its unparalleled ability to interrupt thoughts and offer other distractions, can sap productivity and undermine our ability to concentrate at work.

Some workers maintain that they can work simultaneously on e-mail and other tasks. But in fact, ?our brains aren?t able to do two things at one time,? said Kathleen Nadeau, a business coach and clinical psychologist who specializes in attention deficit disorder and time management.

?We are constantly interrupting one task to attend to another task,? she said, ?and that leads to very rapid cognitive fatigue.?

Q. Is there any way that e-mail can have a positive effect?

A. Some psychologists say e-mail interruptions can enhance creativity and productivity ? up to a point.

Adam Cox, a clinical psychologist whose work focuses on the effects of multitasking and interruptions, said that when we receive work-related e-mail messages, they often stimulate the prefrontal cortex of the brain, our creative center, and make us better at problem solving.

But there is a limit, Dr. Cox cautioned. ?We don?t know how many e-mails puts a person over the edge,? he said, ?but clearly at some point, it no longer leads to greater productivity.?

Q. Should you try to limit the number of times you check e-mail during the day?

A. Ideally, yes, though your ability to do that will depend on your job and your industry. Most organizational experts suggest setting aside two or three times a day to check e-mail.

Christi Youd, president of Organize Enterprise, a consulting firm in Salt Lake City and author of Organize Your Office for Success, recommends checking twice daily ? ?ideally at about 10 a.m., when you?ve got an hour or two of work behind you, and then again after lunch, at 1 or 2 p.m.,? she said.

On the other hand, Debra Condren, a psychologist, author and career consultant in New York and San Francisco, said that creating specific times for checking e-mail could sometimes create more stress, especially if you miss an important message from your boss or a client.

She also said that because people have a tendency to remember an uncompleted task more vividly than a completed one, unanswered messages may stay on our minds and annoy us.

Kerul Kassel, president of New Leaf Systems, a productivity consulting firm in New Harmony, Fla., said that if it is impossible to ignore incoming e-mail for big chunks of time, putting limits on your viewing time can help. ?Limit yourself, for instance, to 10 minutes each time you check,? said Ms. Kassel, who also wrote a book called Stop Procrastinating Now.

Q. What should you do when the in-box is overflowing?

A. Before opening any new messages, you may want to scan for those you are most likely able to answer in two minutes or less, and tackle those immediately.

?You don?t want to have to open it again later and re-analyze the same message,? said Mike Song, chief executive of Cohesive Knowledge Solutions, an e-mail efficiency and business etiquette training firm in Guilford, Conn., and co-author of The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your E-Mail Before It Manages You.

You can also use a preview function1, which lets you read the first line or two of a message and immediately delete what you don?t need, said Eric Abrahamson, a professor at Columbia Business School who teaches organizational management and is the author of A Perfect Mess. That may include chain letters, jokes, CCs and messages from colleagues who send departmental communications to a long distribution list, he said.

Q. What about e-mail that you can?t delete and can?t answer immediately, but that still needs an eventual response?

A. Create filing folders and name them with nouns. Don?t use adjectives, which are more likely to vary according to your mood, Ms. Youd said.

Another way is to prioritize messages by using flags, an option available in Microsoft Outlook and many other e-mail management systems. You can use color-coded flags ? red for high priority ? to remind you that certain messages have not been answered. Then sort the flags by color, Mr. Song said.

Q. What should you do with messages you want to save?

A. Create a long-term storage folder, with topical subfolders if necessary. ?This is for meaningful items like research papers and articles that enhance your professional knowledge,? Mr. Song said.

You can also just archive old e-mail and use a search tool to find information when you need it, said Mr. Abrahamson, who archives his old messages every three months. ?I particularly like the Yahoo Desktop Search; it?s a beta program right now, it?s very powerful and it?s free,? he said.

Q. How can you cut down on the amount of e-mail you receive?

A. Don?t hit ?reply? too often. It can be all too easy to become ensnared in a long line of unnecessary e-mail courtesies and illusory urgencies.

Remember: the fewer messages you send, the fewer you are likely to receive, Mr. Song said.

1 This is actually a dangerous practice, since email opened in a Preview Pane could expose your system to certain viruses or trojans. I recommend that you disable the Preview Pane in all email clients. ~ David Baxter
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