What is the most Insidious Time-Waster in the Office?

It may seem harmless enough but this insidious piece of technology has cost the planet millions of hours in lost productivity. It has almost certainly eaten valuable chunks of your day. It is Outlook's "New Mail Desktop Alert". How much harm can a dinging sound and a popup cause? Time-waster - Outlook New Mail Desktop Alert

It costs you everyday

Every email notification is an interruption. Glancing down at the pop-up may only mean a small change of focus but often these notifications draw you into responding immediately to an email, taking you away from the task you set out to do. A study by Microsoft suggests that it could take up to 15 minutes to get back on track after an interruption. The harder the task, the longer it takes to get back on track. So while the actual interruption averages between 6 to 9 minutes, the time to get back to your normal level of productivity is much longer. Email notifications mean the potential of constant source of interruptions. Most of us receive at least 30-60 email a day. According to Basex, an IT research and consulting firm, the average person working with a computer loses 2.1 hours of productivity a day due to interruptions and distractions. Frustrated man punching computer

It makes you less intelligent

It gets worse! Not only do these annoying pop-ups waste your time, according to a study by the Institute of Psychiatry they also impact your intelligence. Those distracted by incoming email and phone calls saw their IQ fall by 10 points – far worse than found in studies of the impact of smoking marijuana, researchers said. Another study at the University of Michigan found a 40 percent drop in productivity when subjects tried to do two or more things at once. In an article titled "Email is making you Stupid", "Information Week" states that the “research is overwhelming. Constant email interruptions make you less productive, less creative and -- if you're emailing when you're doing something else -- just plain dumb”.

One popup cost me almost an hour

Here’s just one example of how it cost me time before I got rid of this time-waster… I had an important task which had to get done that day so I blocked out three hours in the morning. Ten minutes later I was just getting into the task when suddenly at the bottom left of my screen popped up a little mail notification with the subject "FW: THIS IS VERY COOL!!!". I didn’t want something so trivial to interrupt my task (and I had already seen this one before) so I slid my mouse down and hit the cross to delete the email. It felt good to delete it immediately. A few minutes later I saw another email notification popup with a question. This time it was related to a project I was working on. I knew I could respond to this immediately and get it out of the way. Ten minutes later I hit “Send” with my response. It felt good to be able to help straight-away. Now I could get back to my important task but I thought I should have a quick check of what else was in my inbox. Before I realised it, almost an hour had gone! I had responded to a couple of email that should have waited and it meant that it was going be difficult to get my task completed by the end of the day. It turned out that I had several more email distractions later in the day and ended up having to stay back (with my email off) to get it done. I may be someone who is easily distracted by email but research suggests that I’m not the only one. More than 50% of surveyed workers say they try and respond to email “immediately” or as soon as possible.

What can you do about it

  1. Turn it off! (follow the link for instructions)
  2. Manage Email in Batches. Set aside three times during the day to deal with email. (This depends on your job)
  3. Do one task at a time. Studies have shown that multitasking does not work.
  4. Help rid the world of this time-waster. Register your vote by clicking on "Like" below.

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I totally agree. Until recently I would try to reply to almost every email I got when it arrived or soon after. Not only would it usually make me lose focus on my current task, the frequency of emails would come in faster as you reply to them and others like you would quickly keep responding back. Sometimes it would just become a long chain of back and forth responses, feeling more like you had a chat on an instant messenger then through email and just realizing I've wasted at least 10 minutes on it.

I've started to email in batches and only responding to urgent emails soon after if needed. I will try to do it three times a day like you've said, and see how much productivity I can start winning back.

I turned this off years ago and have never looked back. I suggest turning off the notification envelope as well as the popup.

Now I think my biggest time-waster is phone calls. Very difficult to ignore and your train of thought is completely lost.

When I am working on an important and time-sensitive work, I find that I can completely shut out of the email. I wouldn't look at it and just continue with the work. But then there are times when I actually like the distractions and so I would go through emails or respond to those I need to respond. I don't have any pops up or alert about incoming emails; I can imagine how useless and annoying it must be to see that.

I agree with article about putting some block of time to go through emails. I do that and I find that's the only best time I can file emails away and respond to those that are not easy to reply or more work has to be done before I can respond. Any tips on this?

Thanks for your feedback. You mentioned that your new mail alert has been turned off. I'm guessing that this helps you focus on your task and to completely shut out email. That's great!

In response to your question regarding how to deal with email that cannot be actioned immediately (ie more work has to be done before responding), here is an option. It's by David Allen who has written a book called "Getting Things Done".

Use of filters can make sure that most pop-ups I see are actually useful. If you need to block out some time to work, there is no harm in shutting down Outlook altogether. I find, if I don't manage some mail immediately, I end up spending over an hour cleaning up my inbox and have even completely missed important mail as a result