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Bill Tyler

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When you hear the "ding" on your inbox or see the "new" message pop up on your task bar, do you immediately go reply to it? If you are caught in the never-ending cycle of constant distraction, whether it's a buzzing BlackBerry, instant message, or e-mail alert; you are not alone. Most people have totally lost their ability to concentrate because message interruptions are ruling their time and attention. In today's workplace, attention is your most precious asset. If you are squandering it by constantly checking for messages or replying immediately when you recieve one, you are wasting your time.

How Much Time Are You Wasting?

According to Basex, an information-technology research firm in New York City, interruptions now consume an average of 2.1 hours a day, or 28% of the workday for the average knowledge worker. With the addition of Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks; this number is expected to climb even higher. These near-constant interruptions increase stress, distract workers from their most important tasks, stifle creativity, and drastically reduce the ability to fully concentrate. Even worse, multi-tasking while working on critical objectives increases the likelihood of mistakes in the finished product.

With so much riding on the productivity of today's information worker, what can you do to reduce the problem of interruption overload?

Multitasking is Limited

Intuitively, you know that you can't completely focus on more than one thing at a time. Yet, when it comes to texting, e-mail, or instant messaging; it somehow seems different. However, the fact that many states and municipalities feel the need to ban the use of cell phones, and especially texting, while driving; it is clear that your focus deteriorates with additional tasks. Even if the attention is evenly divided, at some point, there is simply not enough attention available to distribute to everything.

While there are some activities you can do simultaneously, such as walking and talking to a friend; many activities compete for the same parts of the brain. For example, if you are on a conference call, and you have to have the person asking you a question repeat themselves, it is likely you were reading your e-mail when you should have been listening more intently. These two tasks both use the brain's language cognition. Think about it next time you read a text or an e-mail, did you "say" the words of the message in your head? By using the same parts of the brain at the same time, you are forces to switch between the two. This mental switching causes an overall delay in your cognitive processing. The two tasks combined will actually take as much as 40% longer to complete, than, if they were done one after the other. Additionally, the quality of each task when done concurrently will be degraded making mistakes more likely.

Manage Your Focus

To ensure you are as productive as possible, it is necessary to manage your focus. If you want fewer interruptions, here are some helpful tips:

* Turn off alerts. You can and should disable the message "ding" and the pop-up visual alert (if you are using Outlook, Go to Tools, Options..., E-Mail Options..., Advanced E-Mail Options..., then changes the settings under "When new items arrive in my inbox")

* Limit compulsive e-mail checking. Only check e-mail 3-5 times per day. Resist the urge to check your e-mail every 15 minutes. (If you have critical messages or certain people require immediate urgent action, set up a rule that plays a sound when you get a message from that person or with a certain subject.)

* Reduce your outflow. Only reply to all if essential. Don't send unnecessary replies. Tell the reader if no reply is necessary.

* Pick up the phone. If a short phone call will eliminate ten e-mails, then, by all means make the call.

Lead by Example

While you may not be able to change everyone in your company, you may have more of an impact than you realize. Modeling different behavior often has a rippling effect in organizations. Hyper-urgency can be addicting. Like most addictions, there are some serious negative consequences for this behavior. It has become such an issue that even technology companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Intel are members of the Information Overload Research Group (iorgforum.org) whose stated purpose is to reduce information pollution. While information overload has become a global problem, don't let that stop you from changing your little corner of it.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it's the only thing that ever has. -- Margaret Mead"

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