Stop the email time thief: Don't let new messages distract you

Multitasking? It's a major drain on productivity...

Most of us feel compelled to respond instantly to emails, but that urge to reply may often be misguided, says Monica Seeley.

If you missed BBC Radio 4's recent book of the week, The Winter of Our Disconnect, I urge you to buy a copy. One of its themes is how digital media, from email to Facebook, distracts us and leaves us less productive. The book's author, Susan Maushart, is not the first to find that although we like to think we are good at multitasking, actually it is a major drain on our productivity.

Others have demonstrated that each time we stop, even to take a sneak preview at an email, it adds 15 minutes to the time it takes to complete the task in hand. No wonder the long-hours culture pervades the UK and US.

I had the honour recently to work with the English Institute of Sport at its national conference. One of the questions raised was what is it that successful elite athletes, or indeed any sports professionals, do when they are performing at their peak? Focus, focus and refocus.

Cursor hovering over inbox button

Instant reactions to email can be very expensive if the reply is either incorrect or admits liability to an error
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

Look around and see who are the successful business people. They too are the ones who are able to focus on the task in hand, even if it is only for a few minutes. In terms of email, it raises questions such as:

  • Why do we let email interrupt our lives?
  • Why do we feel we must respond immediately to an email?
  • What does an instant response say about us and how busy we are?
  • How many emails do we regularly receive that honestly need answering immediately?
  • What if the response requires consideration, for example, evidence?

Some would argue that a fast response is good customer service. But what about the customer with whom you are already dealing? In the financial services sector, some say time is money and that you only look at traders for proof. Yet they may just be the exception to the rule.

There is also often disparity between the sender's expectation of an acceptable response time and the recipient's perception of what is expected. The sender's is often longer and inversely proportional to their seniority.

Instant reactions to email can also be very expensive if the reply is...