In a study last year, Dr Thomas Jackson of Loughborough University, England, found that it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after interruption by email (bit.ly/email2). So people who check their email every five minutes waste 8 1/2hours a week figuring out what they were doing moments before.The distractive (and some would say destructive) effects of email come down partly to the psychology of addiction and reinforcement:
Tom Stafford, a lecturer at the University of Sheffield, England, and co-author of the book Mind Hacks, believes that the same fundamental learning mechanisms that drive gambling addicts are also at work in email users. "Both slot machines and email follow something called a 'variable interval reinforcement schedule' which has been established as the way to train in the strongest habits," he says.
"This means that rather than reward an action every time it is performed, you reward it sometimes, but not in a predictable way. So with email, usually when I check it there is nothing interesting, but every so often there's something wonderful - an invite out or maybe some juicy gossip - and I get a reward." This is enough to make it difficult for us to resist checking email, even when we've only just looked. The obvious solution is to process email in batches, but this is difficult. One company delayed delivery by five minutes, but had so many complaints that they had to revert to instantaneous delivery. People knew that there were emails there and chafed at the bit to get hold of them.Things like weekly "no email days" don't work either, because they don't actually change people's compulsive email-checking habits. Charman-Anderson's article recommends other notification technologies, such as Twitter and RSS aggregators, as better alternatives.
On a similar tangent, one of the tips for getting more done in Tim Ferriss' The 4-Hour Work Week is a somewhat counterintuitive-sounding low-information diet; rather than binging on magazines, news, books, blogs, podcasts and such, he advocates cutting that out as much as possible, reasoning that we can get by on much less information than we habitually consume and still know enough, whilst having more time to actually do things. The holes in what we know will soon enough be filled by what we hear in smalltalk, learn from friends unavoidably see in front of the newspaper kiosk on the way to the shops. (Which sort of makes sense; think, for example, of the how much you know of the plots of various well-known movies you haven't seen or books you haven't read. Whether or not you've seen Star Wars or read Animal Farm (to cite two examples), you can probably come up with a summary of what they're about.)
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