Multi-tasking: Your Email Could be Hazardous to Your Career Health

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How many of us pride ourselves in our ability to multitask. We think it is an advantage – and maybe it is. But has it gone too far?

 

Let’s face it – multitasking isn’t really doing two things at once. Multitasking is alternating among tasks. In other words, you hit the print button, then shift to making a phone call while the print job is delivered. And yes, some PAs are darn good at it. But there’s a limit; and the constant barrage of e-mail messages is testing that limit.

 

The amount of e-mail we all receive is steadily increasing. With the average professional receiving between 80 and 150 e-mails every day, it can be a real challenge not only to manage all those e-mails, but to stay current and to get all of our other non-e-mail tasks done. It is an even bigger challenge to be able to do all these things in what we used to define as the normal work day.

 

This is where we could be fooling ourselves into thinking that multitasking with e-mail is productive. The threat is that by trying to handle e-mail while doing other tasks, we could be either splitting our attention between tasks or robbing the needed focus from one to deal with the other. Therefore, trying to do two things at once results in one or both of the tasks not being given the proper focus. By allowing a newly received e-mail message to draw us away from the current task, we lose concentration and continuity, threatening the ultimate quality of our work and costing us valuable ‘interruption recovery time.’

 

The reality is that no one can do two things at once, just like we can’t be in two places at the same time. Yes, we might be able to do something physical and something mental, such as walking and talking. Yes, we can expertly move from task to task and back again. That’s how we need to manage our e-mail so that we can get more done, more expertly, and with better results.

 

So, how can you manage your e-mail so that you can shift tasks rather than try to multi-task? Here are some time-saving tips:

 

Acknowledge that multi-tasking is impossible.

Because you can’t think two things at once, you’re fooling yourself if you think you can. Bite the bullet and throw out the notion that multi-tasking is possible, and replace it with the understanding that task shifting is a much more effective way to approach getting things done.

 

Give your full attention to each task.

If you’re on the phone, don’t scroll though your e-mail. If you’re sorting your e-mail, focus on it until you’re done. If you’re talking with someone, don’t sneak a peak at your PDA.

 

Group like tasks, and work them in ‘buckets.’

Grouping like tasks has always been a time management strategy. It applies to e-mail as well. Instead of reading each e-mail message as it comes in, turn off your automatic send and receive, and view your inbox in spaced intervals throughout the day.

 

Incorporate the sorting of e-mail into your day.

By acknowledging that you will need to go into your e-mail periodically to sort the newly received items, and scheduling that time in your day, as opposed to leaving it for after work or on weekends, you will set the stage for optimum results.

 

Reduce the number of times you check for new e-mail.

Maximize the amount of time between viewing your inbox and opening your e-mail. Give yourself time to work. Tell people that if they need you urgently, to please call.

 

Differentiate between sorting and handling e-mail.

Too many people confuse these two actions. It is important that you go into your e-mail in intervals and sort the newly received items. Note: sort does not mean work. One of the real challenges with looking at newly received e-mails is to avoid being drawn in to working on or handling that e-mail when it is not as important as other tasks on your list.

 

Implement the two-minute limit.

One exception to the sort versus work rule is ifyou can accomplish the task in the email within two minutes, do it! If not, file it in an appropriate folder to be viewed when you are planning your priorities for the day.
Set a regular time, once daily, to plan your work for the day.

This is when you go into your sorted e-mail to determine its priority, in addition to other projects, telephone calls, meetings, and assigned work. Most people do this in the morning, but others like to do it at the end of the workday. Regardless of when you do it, by setting a regular time, daily, you will be assured of working the e-mail you receive in the proper priority. This practice avoids the potential for you to be drawn into working on newly received e-mails that are unimportant yet time-consuming.

 

Get it out of your inbox.

You don’t open your snail mail and then put it back into the mailbox, so why keep all of your email in your inbox? While it may seem like a good idea to have all pending work staring you in the face every time you check your inbox, the reality is that all of this undone work promotes procrastination and makes you feel overwhelmed. After you have sorted your e-mail, place it in folders that enable you to view it when you plan your day.
Control your email, don’t let it control you.

Don’t let the email ‘ding’ pull you away from the work you are already doing. Honor your need to focus on the task at hand. Turn off automatic send and receive and check your email on your own time schedule.

 

By taking ownership of your e-mail, reducing the number of times you check your e-mail daily, grouping like tasks, separating the sort and work functions of your e-mail, and incorporating the work delivered by e-mail into the planning of your workday, you will be able to manage the onslaught of e-mail better, and with proper focus.

 

But, the real key is for you to resist the urge to do two things at once, because at least one of them will suffer from lack of proper attention. Instead, focus fully on the task at hand. And when it is done, move to the next. And the next. And the next. And the next.

 

Why? Because we can

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About Author

Marsha Egan

Marsha Egan, CPCU, PCC is CEO of The Egan Group, a Nantucket, Massachusetts-based workplace productivity coaching firm. She is author of Inbox Detox and the Habit of E-mail Excellence. She can be reached at [email protected] or www.MarshaEgan.com. To see Marsha’s blog, visit www.MarshaEgan.com/blog and to listen to her podcast, “Great Points” visit her iTunes channel.

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