Little did Raymond Tomlinson, a computer engineer in 1971 from Cambridge, Massachusetts knew that his first text message ‘QWERTYUIOP’ from one computer to another sitting side by side, travelling via a network of computers would change the way the world would communicate in future.
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Meanwhile, in 1978, a 14-year old boy Shiva Ayyadurai developed the very first system that we know of as Email that changed the world forever.
With the advancement and popularity of connected network now called the Internet, Email went through several transformations. From a dormant program on a computer to a dynamic web-based communication application, the Email has influenced not only how we communicate but how we work overall.
Blackberry revolutionized communication further by bringing emails into people’s palms. The vibration alert from the Blackberry was a new trigger that became a new impulse for those hand-cuffed with this new device to check the next incoming email. One of the catalysts for the so-called ‘Multi-tasking’ habit should be credited to Blackberry. Amongst others, Blackberry should also be credited for the acceptance of checking emails in meetings as not impolite in most workplaces.
Does this sound familiar?
The first thing most of us do after booting up our corporate devices is to check our emails, although you must have done that already during your commute. However, between the elevator landing on your floor and you getting ready to start work after your coffee, those few emails in those few minutes in between must be checked, and responded to, right away. Well, how rude if you don’t respond to the email received at 7:09 by 7:10. We have become accustomed to managing our work from the mailbox command centre. The emails command our work direction and priorities, and those at the top has a better share of your fragmented attention. The one with a red exclamation sign must skip the queue and grab your eyeballs first. Don’t forget the emails from your direct managers and senior leaders; they deserve priority. How about squeezing most of our lunchtime for solving the world problem through email?
That’s at the workplace. On the other hand, communication in our personal lives has changed over the years. Texting is well ingrained in our lives. Personal emails have nearly been replaced by free and instant texting. The main-stream corporate world has not been fully invaded by texting yet. It’s only inevitable that this change is coming soon.
There are tons of information on the advantages, disadvantages of emails, and best practices for taming your mailbox – I will save you those details. However, I want to draw your attention to the most severe impact these behaviour is having on us, and it will only accelerate in the days to come.
Lack of focus impacting the quality of our output
With everyone vying for atoms of your attention, regardless of whether you have four walls and a door or an open space at work, a focused and concentrated method of working is becoming a rare commodity. Everyone else has taken over what you will be thinking and doing in every waking moment of your lives. We seem to be high on momentum, an illusion disguised as progress without realizing that the majority of the incoming messages will only distance you from your core objectives. There is a false sense of accomplishment, which is like running on a treadmill but not reaching anywhere.
Change is coming
Emails will gradually pass on the baton to its newer prodigy – messaging at workplaces, where it may soon become the formal means of interaction. It has taken root in some areas already but hasn’t swept the entire corporate world as yet. But it’s coming. Long emails will become snippets of messages requiring us to spend our attention constantly. Multiple emails with multiple people will transition to a continuous group conversation where everyone will be able to chime in at the same time. Keeping track of relevant messages to read and respond will become even more challenging. Where emails have consumed our attention, messaging will even cloud our thinking.
Would you be comfortable letting your pilot distracted while landing the plane? So, why is it acceptable and to some extent desired to multi-task when the quality degradation is almost guaranteed?
Imagine the officer at the Air Traffic Control multi-tasking while coordinating a flight take-off or landing. Imagine a surgeon doing brain surgery and is distracted to offer his expertise to other patients. Imagine your friendly dentist drilling out the cavity from your tooth and being distracted to diagnose other waiting patients.
Science has proven beyond doubt that our brain is not capable of doing two things at the same time consciously, never mind multi-tasking. The critical loss due to the attention leak is how our brain is wired to do things – focusing on one thing at a time. That is the only way we can be sure of delivering high-quality output.
The good news is that not all is lost. We have control over this, and we can and must claim our attention territory before it’s too late. If we don’t act now, it will only get worse in the coming times. We need to conquer our lost attention territory.
Like web-email application which comes with an ‘Unsubscribe’ option, I wish the work email applications could also allow recipients to take themselves off the thread should they need to. For now, I use the following 4 simple steps for my sanity:
- I block two one-hour slots each day for working on my priorities and for checking and responding to emails. I do my best to keep the 2-hour commitment.
- I check my calendar first thing in the morning to reconfirm the meetings I need to be at, and which ones I can delegate or decline altogether.
- At the end of each day, I define or confirm the following day’s 2-3 tasks aligned to my priorities that I use the 2-hour slot to work on.
- Life happens, and you can’t get everything done the same day, so to not lose sight, at the end of the day I attach those emails that require my attention to a new email and send it myself to work on the following day.
Sometimes using old ways are the best ways.
Reimagine the incoming tsunami of information as snail mail landing in the old-fashioned mailbox at the end of your driveway, which you would occasionally visit to collect and act on.
Take control of your focus and your lives. Let the main thing be the main thing.
Success to you!