The Way You Check Email Is Making You Less Productive
This article originally appeared on Forbes by Mark Murphy, Founder of Leadership IQ
The average person checks their email about 15 times per day. But a recent study from researchers at the University of British Columbia found that when people were limited to checking their email just three times per day, their stress levels decreased significantly. The folks who limited their email checking also felt that they were more able to complete their most important work. And they felt a greater sense of accomplishment at work.
Unfortunately, based on the 5,242 leaders that have taken the free online quiz “How Do Your Time Management Skills Stack Up?,” 78% of people check their email frequently throughout the day. And 66% say that the first things they do in the morning are check email or voicemail.
Think about the implications of that. Imagine that you’ve got an important project that’s going to require you to think deeply, maybe do some writing, and overall require high-level cognition. It takes a little while to really get your brain in the groove. If it takes you 15 minutes to really get rolling, that’s a setup cost you incur every single time you pause to check email.
So picture yourself; you sit down to work, it takes 15 minutes to get rolling and then you actually get writing. But lurking in the back of your mind is that nagging thought ‘I wonder if Bob has returned my email yet?’ You try to push it away, but it just keeps gnawing at you. After a few minutes you crack, stop your writing on the big project and sneak a quick peek at your email. Unfortunately, Bob has not yet returned your email, so you turn back to your project. But now you’ve got to go through the 15 minute setup again to get your brain back in gear before you can restart your writing. And then after another 10 minutes of writing you’ll once again get those nagging thoughts about the email, and on it goes.
There’s an abundance of research showing that people don’t concentrate as well when they’re constantly interrupted. And given our little example above, it’s pretty obvious why.
So what should you do? For starters, take a 2-hour break from email. And then in that 2-hours, crank out your 1-2 most important projects. Lock your door, leave your office, walk to your favorite coffee shop, whatever you have to do in order to have the most productive 2 hours of your day.
Have you ever done work at a coffee shop and found that you got more done in 1 hour there than you did in 8 hours back at the office? Of course you have, everyone has. It’s truly amazing how much each of us can accomplish when we actually take 60-120 minutes of quiet time to sit and think without interruptions from things like email.
I should note that when I say take a break from email, I also mean you need to turn off the little email notifications that pop up on your computer screen. And put your phone away; you are not allowed to check that either.
Then, tomorrow morning, do not check your email until you've taken 10 minutes to plot out your day and identify the two to three things you need to accomplish in order to feel great about your day.
Once you start checking email you're giving up control of your productivity. Think about it; once you check email, there’s a little thought planted in your brain about all the emails you’ve received, who they’re from, what they want, etc. This little thought will nag at you all day long. And it will absolutely hurt your productivity.
Instead of waking up and checking your email, take a few minutes for yourself. Your head is nicely clear, you don’t have all those annoying thoughts about whether Bob has returned your email, and you’re cognitively about as focused as you’re going to be all day. In those few minutes, ask yourself this question: “What do I need to accomplish today for this to be a successful day?”
What most people typically find is that there are only one or two or three things that we truly need to accomplish for the day to be successful. Sure, you’ll do hundreds of things throughout the day, but the vast majority of them will not affect whether you consider your day to have been successful.
And while you’re still in this wonderful clear-headed state, before you turn on your email, why don’t you take another 30 minutes and actually start cranking on one of those one or two or three things that will make your day successful. If you’re like most people, you’ll find that 30 minutes of clear-headed uninterrupted work will drive more accomplishment than hours of the interrupted fragmented thinking you have at the office.