Carpe Diem! Your Career, Your Firm, and Your Health May Depend on It

By Ryan Banfill, FJA Communications Director

There’s a beast that can eat your firm from the inside out; generate employee frustration, and force star performers out of the door.

Distraction is this corrosive force.

Like rust can eat away at the strongest metal and cause it to erode, research shows an environment where distraction and interruption is the rule can cause the strongest members of your firm to fail, give up, and move on.

Requiem for Your Email Inbox

One chief contributor is email—and we have Ray Tomlinson to blame. He’s credited as being the person who invented email – in 1972.

The Radicati Group, a British-based technology research firm, reports daily worldwide email traffic in 2019 stands at 293.6 million. The firm estimates half of the world’s population uses email, with 3.9 billion users in 2019. That number is expected to grow to 4.3 billion by the end of 2023.

There’s likely a message from them sitting unopened in your email inbox. They’re crowded in there and competing for your attention. They are all calling out your name.

Some people need to have a clean email inbox. They immediately open and respond to every message. Others, like me, get so far behind in responding that they give up trying to keep up.

I’m on the other end of the spectrum. While I open the urgent messages, I will let others sit until I have time to go through them.

At this very moment, there are 50,288 unopened emails in my inbox. Litmus Email Analytics found between 2011 and 2016, the average time spent reading email increased by nearly seven percent to 11.1 seconds. Times that by 50,288 and I’d have to set aside 155 hours to read my unopened messages. Spending four work weeks reading old email is not the best use of the time and resources available when there are much more pressing issues to tackle.

It is important to be reactive to messages in a respectful, thoughtful, and timely manner. The response does not always have to be immediate. In fact, responding too quickly can cause problems.

Author Pete Liebman advises not to immediately respond to email because it makes you slower and less productive and (over time) encourages the sender to be impatient. He says hyperresponsiveness to email also reduces the importance of the emails you send.

Era of Interruption

Here’s what research says about the impact of email: The next time someone asks, “Did you see my email?” what they’re really saying is, “Did you drop everything to address my need at the expense of the task at hand?”

With email, smartphone apps, push notices, texts, and good old-fashioned telephone calls, we’re living in an era of interruption.

“We live in an age of constant distractions,” says Daniela Hernandez in a video featured on WSJ.com. She is the Digital Science Editor for the Wall Street Journal and has a Ph.D. in neurobiology from Columbia University.

A 2017 Canadian study found people spend one-third of their in-office work day – and half of the time when they work from home – reading and responding to emails. The researchers from Carleton University in Ottawa also found that 30 percent of the emails are neither urgent nor important.

The Battle in Your Brain

The incoming distractions create a “tug of war” between the parietal cortex (associated with working memory operations) and frontal cortex (responsible for cognitive control) of our brains.

In Regional Brain Differences in the Effect of Distraction During the Delay Interval of a Working Memory Task, the authors note, “The ability to maintain focus on goal-relevant information while ignoring goal-irrelevant and potentially distracting information depends upon a set of operations whose coordinated actions contribute to cognitive control.

Cognitive control is necessary to bridge the gap between the processing of incoming sensory input and the execution of actions adaptively suited to the current goals and environment (Miller and D’Esposito, 2005).”

“Checking email more frequently throughout the day was associated with feeling more stressed and overwhelmed,” researcher Kostadin Kushlev told Hernandez. He’s an assistant professor at Georgetown who conducted a study on the impact of email on employee stress. Why does something as seemingly innocuous induce stress and anxiety among recipients?

Email Spreads OPP: Other People’s Priorities

“You’re basically doing something that other people need,” Professor Kushlev told the Journal’s Hernandez, comparing attention to a calm lake and notifications are raindrops that fall into the lake. Each drop creates a disturbance on the surface of the water.

“The higher the cognitive load, the more susceptible we are to distractions,” Hernandez notes, explaining notifications on our phones draw away attention from priority projects and makes them harder to complete.

Professor Kushlev adds, “The switching requires cognitive effort, and so you end up more depleted at the end of the day.”


Read Part 2: A Lizard, Monkey, and Human Walk into Your Mind: Which One Kills Your Career?  
Part 3 coming next week!

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