The Cost of Continuously Checking Email

Ron Friedman for the Harvard Business Review:

“Shifting our attention from one task to another, as we do when we’re monitoring email while trying to read a report or craft a presentation, disrupts our concentration and saps our focus. Each time we return to our initial task, we use up valuable cognitive resources reorienting ourselves . . . regaining our initial momentum following an interruption can take, on average, upwards of 20 minutes.

Multitasking, as many studies have shown, is a myth. A more accurate account of what happens when we tell ourselves we’re multitasking is that we’re rapidly switching between activities, degrading our clarity and depleting our mental energy.”

Same goes for anything that might grab your attention at random intervals throughout the day.

Lots of things deplete our cognitive resources: task switching, decision making, using will power… and generally, everything you do on your phone or computer that isn’t real work uses these resources.

When you glance at a social network, for example, you’re not only task-switching and losing your focus, you’re also making tons of little decisions about each thing you read (“How do I feel about this? Should I respond? Should I keep reading? Save it for later?”) and potentially using will power (“This thing makes me angry, but I won’t respond even though I want to. This thing interests me, but I shouldn’t look into it right now because I’m supposed to be working.”)

Even having the option of engaging in these distractions has the potential to throw you off (Do your find yourself motivated to stop and grab your phone to glance through a couple apps now and then?). The ubiquity of notifications doesn’t help this either. Do you really need to get notifications from every single app your have installed on your phone? Notifications turn everything into an obligation that needs to be dealt with in real time instead of something you can check into at your leisure. It’s a constant drain on your attention and energy.

I’ve slowly been reducing the number of things that I allow to grab my attention, and while there’s been lots of back and forth, I highly recommend trying to do it yourself.

Think for a second about what you really need to know about in real time.

For me, text messages generally imply some sort of time sensitivity (although that line seems to be blurring), but I generally regard email as something I can respond to as time allows. I never let email notify me (seriously, who are you people that can stand to get notifications for every email you receive?), but I’ve also turned off the unread badge indicator which can almost be worse. Do you sometimes get email that requires an immediate response? Do some work to find a better medium for those messages or to set up rules that will notify you only in cases that really warrant it.

If you’re getting messages that are not appropriate to the service (e.g. texts that should be emails, emails that should be calls), then ask the senders to adjust how they communicate with you.

What else can you go without? Don’t let social media alert you unless you truly use a service for real-time communication with important people. If you do, figure out how to weed out any other notifiers. When a new app asks for your permissions to send notifications, make it habit to say decline. You can enable them later if you decide you need to.

Or just go a step further and remove social media apps and other distractors from your phone entirely. This removes the temptation to constantly check in on those platforms (while you’re walking, working, talking, eating, using the bathroom, driving – oh god, please don’t read Twitter while you’re driving). Instead of a constant stream, those services become something you have to purposefully check in on in your free time on a less mobile device (laptop or tablet). If you’re really worried about getting bored, read a paragraph of a book or use a read-it later app like Instapaper or Pocket to read an article you’ve been meaning to get to (though be careful, articles and RSS can become distractions as well).

Give yourself some relief

The idea is not to adopt some strict minimalist electronic philosophy, it’s just to be a little more intentional with what is allowed to compete for your attention. This isn’t something you can deal with in real time because when something asks for your attention, it already has it if only for a split second. So I recommend applying some forethought to what is allowed to have use your time and energy. Just because something can notify you, doesn’t mean it should.

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