Constant interruptions torpedo our productivity.
A few years ago, Disney Pixar released the movie “Up.” It’s a sweet little film about a rather crotchety old widower and a young scout who accidentally end up on an adventure together.
Not long after they touch down in a far-off land they are greeted by a dog named Dug. He’s a lovable golden retriever who bounds affectionately into their arms and then shocks them both when he speaks English via a special collar translator worn around his neck. The only trouble is, he often interrupts himself midsentence, shouts “squirrel,”and points for a second or two.
In a lot of ways, we humans are a lot like Dug. Only our “squirrels” are the bings and buzzes of digital devices. One minute we’re working productively on something, but the second our phone vibrates, we will drop everything and turn to it … squirrel!
These constant interruptions torpedo our productivity. It is estimated that the average person wastes two hours a day on email, 40 minutes a day on Facebook, 12 minutes on Twitter, 10 minutes on LinkedIn and an additional 96 minutes switching back and forth among tasks.
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Why are we “addicted” to all this stuff?
First, there is a powerful conditioning loop at work. Our digital devices often “reward” us with feelings of belonging and significance when we respond to them. That email from Mom, the high-five from the boss — they make us feel good.
The second reason we’re addicted is because of a little human trait that social scientists call reciprocity, or the compulsion to respond in kind to others. It is a trait that enables individuals to make contributions to the larger social group.
Here are four strategies for resisting the digital siren call.
1. Turn off all alerts, buzzes, dings and pop-ups that could distract you from your work at hand. If you have a Mac, you can also “hide” your dock while you are working on something, so you won’t see any visual indicators that you have mail. We recommend turning them off for good because you don’t ever really need to be at their mercy.
2. There are programs — Freedom and Concentrate — that enable you to lock yourself out of “rewarding” programs like email and social-media sites when you need to focus on a task. The programs are $10 and $29, respectively, but worth their weight in gold.
3. Reward yourself for good behavior. Use the powerful emotional rewards of significance and belonging to strengthen new, more productive behavior. For example, if you currently respond to every email, text, etc., the second it comes in, try rewarding yourself with a peek at those emails after you finish a task successfully.
4. Send fewer emails and texts, and make what you do send brief and to the point. Kim Davis, a woman we interviewed for our book “Pretty Neat,” tried an experiment. She added a signature line to all of her emails that simply said, “Please keep our email boxes uncluttered, only reply all if it is critical everyone receives your reply.”
She immediately noticed a drop in “reply all”clutter in her inbox. She also noticed others in her department, and then those in other departments, adopting her signature line as well. In that spirit, if you send fewer emails, you will receive fewer emails. Make reciprocity work for — not against — you.
The writers are co-founders of Buttoned Up, a company dedicated to helping stressed women get organized.