It’s 3 a.m. and you can’t sleep. You check email. You wake up three hours later from what felt like just a few minutes of shut-eye. You check email again. If you are not working virtually, you roll in to the office and power up your laptop. You check email for the third, maybe fourth time that day. You might take a call (and check email), and then you meet with some of your team (and check email). After the meeting, you go back to your desk to check email, but mindlessly start to check email on your phone while walking back to your workspace. On your way, you get accosted in the hall by someone who wants your advice on something which you cannot even remember three minutes into the conversation. At this point, you check your watch. Then you check your email. Now it’s lunchtime.
Sound familiar? A recent survey by software company Atlassian discovered the average knowledge worker in the United States receives more than 300 emails per day. Further, we check email a mere 36 times a day, and it takes us an average of 16 minutes to refocus on a task after checking email each time. Oh, and for those of you who like to answer your email as they come in continuously throughout the day? Expect your IQ to drop between 10 and 15 points. This is basically the equivalent of losing a night of sleep—on top of the night of sleep you just lost anyway.
But you’re different, right? You handle it all. You multitask. You email like a master. You manage your time perfectly. So perfectly, in fact, that you have time to read another article on productivity in the startup space.
What if I told you your feedback loop is misleading? What if I told you there are better ways than time management to increase your productivity? Time to revisit the basics. Let’s start with the research. Here is what we know:
Multitasking may not actually exist, and could actually be harmful. A study in 2014 by Stanford University researchers found that individuals who multitasked actually performed worse than those who didn’t on a variety of jobs. The ability for a person to transition to a new task was decreased significantly, and multitasking participants had trouble organizing their thoughts. A second study, this time from the University of London, again found multitasking actually lowers your IQ. This study found IQ drops as much as 15 points, with “declines similar to smoking marijuana or staying up all night.” Men even lowered their IQ to the average range of an 8-year-old on cognitive tasks while multi-tasking. If you have ever uttered the words at work, “I am surrounded by children,” you might just be surrounded by multitaskers.
Multitasking isn’t just a people problem; our tools are also suffering. In an effort to pursue the highest level of productivity, we now seek out apps that combine our email, our task management and our calendaring (looking at you, Google Inbox). However, there is strong evidence we should keep them separated. The Harvard Business Review explains we often fall into these traps because our email has the perception of forming much of what we do in work and in life. Our tasks arrive in the form of email. Our event invitations come in email. Our subtle requests from our significant others to pick up dinner on the way home often arrives in the form of email. Take a moment and think back to the last time you could not recall the purpose of a meeting and had to go back through your email to find it. Nothing slows you down like diving into your inbox to find your next task.
Time is finite; energy is renewable. Finally, for all who have spent endless hours honing your time management skills, I have bad news. Time management tips, as it turns out, are the cigarettes of the productivity world. Yes, it was cool of you to show others you could balance it all. But now we know cigarettes will kill you, and the pursuit of balance can do the same. Instead, you can perform better at work and at home by managing your ENERGY and not your TIME. For example, for an average U.S .worker, 60 percent or less of your time is actually spent being productive at work. Harvard, this time as early as 2007, identified the issue and we have not done a good job of listening. “The Core Problem with working longer hours is that time is a finite resource. Energy is a different story.” They went on to show even then at organizations like Ernst & Young, Sony and Wachovia that focusing on wellness criteria (nutrition, sleep, exercise) all produced demonstrable returns to the bottom line.
So, what can you do? Here are five easy steps for you to try.
- Process your email, don’t respond to your email: Email is not what you think it is. Email is, in fact, only a precursor to one of two things: 1) an action item or 2) a reference item. Treat it as such, and move those action items to a task list and your reference items to your filing system of choice (likely the archive button).
- Focus on the task, not on the time: Getting Things Done guru David Allen explains this succinctly with, “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.” Identify a task, then identify the next task (Allen calls these “next actions”). The secret is to think one step ahead each time, every time.
- Add some context(s): Once we throw balance out the window, we realize that we can better define our world by the contexts in which we operate. Are you at the office? Maybe you are working from home. Perhaps you are simply driving by Walgreens. Office, home and car are great examples of contexts. For every task, identify the context where that task is best completed. Then, group your tasks by context and get them done.
- Keep them separated: Try different tools for email, task management and calendaring. This allows you to be purposeful when you enter a given app or tool. Tools that offer multiple solutions for you also succumb to the paradox of choice. You miss a beat, lose time and spend a lot of mental processing power when you open a “one-size-fits-all” app and then have to decide again which feature to use at that time.
- Let energy be your guide: We have all blocked time on our calendar to do some focused work, but we usually block those things arbitrarily to make sure we have them on the calendar. Next time, try blocking certain activities so they complement your own energy levels throughout the day. Are you an extrovert who spends her mornings alone on email? Block the first hours of your afternoon for in-person meetings to reenergize. Are you a night owl who does his best work at 1 a.m.? Block a few daylight hours for those smaller tasks that don’t require a lot of your cognitive load.
Have you tried any of these tips before? What other techniques have you found helpful to help tame your inbox and manage your energy? We would love to hear from you in our comments.