Working Smarter

The Costly Fallacy of Constant Email Checking for Fear You Might Miss Something

Posted by Joe Robinson

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In one of the most celebrated plays of the 20th century, Waiting for Godot, two characters have a variety of arguments and rambling conversations while waiting for someone who never appears. It’s an apt metaphor for people and events we all wait for that are illusory. One of them these days is a phantom plenty of us are expecting but that never arrives.

Across the nation vigilant souls await, standing ready by their phones and keyboards for something. They don’t know what. They don’t know when. All they know is they have to be glued incessantly to their devices in case this unknown thing should appear.

NONSTOP E-SENTRY DUTY

The email is set to check continuously. Notifications are ready to relay an instant visual alert on the screen of choice of the thing-that-could-be-coming. People are afraid to not check email for an hour or on the weekend or vacation lest their Godot should arrive. The e-sentry duty is all on account of a widespread fear afflicting millions—of missing something important, say, an emergency.

It’s a state of constant expectancy that undermines attention, the chief productivity tool, and impulse control, and drives information overload, time urgency, stress, burnout, mistakes, and poor work-life balance. And it’s all a big mistake. Emergencies should always be handled by phone and never by email.

The workplace is awash with false beliefs that fuel the opposite of effective performance, and this is certainly one of them. The assumption behind the I-don’t-want-to-miss-something autopilot is faulty, because it’s based on the hub of poor decision-making, fear. Being on guard for every email that comes in 24/7 for fear of catastrophes that might happen if we don’t is not an effective use of time. The interruptions blow up working memory and subvert impulse control, which shrinks attention spans and the discipline needed to stay on task.

WHAT'S AN EMERGENCY?

It’s part of the survival instinct for humans to be on the lookout for possible threats to life and limb, but those are not going to happen via email. Every organization needs to free the attentions and time of staff with a more productive approach to email monitoring and communicating which things are really important. That starts by defining the thing that everyone is sitting around waiting for: the emergency, and the proper response to it— reaching out by phone.

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Every team in the company needs to have a clear understanding of what constitutes an emergency or something extremely urgent that demands an instant response. Spell out which scenarios are in the emergency category and which are not. Specify the expected actions and responses if those circumstances occur. For instance, when a certain situation occurs, the first course of action is a phone call. Despite the best vigilance of email-watchers, emails get lost, buried, misinterpreted, sent to spam folders, and addresses get typo-ed. When you need to get hold of someone NOW, call them.

Vagueness is the enemy of effective work. Clarity on the nature of an emergency as well as on when email availability is expected and not expected can help regain uninterrupted, productive time and free up recovery time after work. Studies show that minds that don't switch off work strains at home are destined to return to work the next day with negative affect and strain unalleviated—which undercuts attention and task performance.

MANDATING LESS EMAIL USE

The amazing thing is that prior to the email era, businesses actually made money, grew, functioned, and handled emergencies without a single click. The tool that made it happen was the telephone. There is evidence that some leaders concerned about performance are rediscovering the importance of the phone and reducing email usage. Deloitte and U.S. Cellular are two companies that have mandated less email use and report increased productivity and rapport between employees as a result.

I led a productivity training for managers at Lockheed Martin, and during the section on email I had one manager volunteer the fact that, unlike every one of the other managers going bonkers from email overload in the room, he didn’t have an email problem. There was immediate wall-to-wall jaw-dropping. He told the stunned group, “I just tell my people I’d rather be contacted by phone. If you have to email, make sure it’s important.”

Those two things alone made his job, identical to that of others in the room, not fraught with excess email. Email invites extra contact because it’s so easy to do. Something that has to rise to the level of a phone call automatically weeds out the nonessential and random thoughts that are sent because it’s easy to sit back and click whatever is top of mind.

One of my clients, JamesandMatthew.com, an advertising and marketing firm in Boston, decided to dramatically reduce email by moving most communications to the project management software Base Camp. It lets them put all their communications in one place, per project. Instead of having email boxes flooded, everything is on a page that staff can check when they want. This allows each person to set the terms of engagement with email, putting them in control, which stops incessant interruptions and the overwhelm and stress that comes with it.

PROACTIVE SOFTWARE SOLUTIONS

Caught up in continual email loops, CEO Matthew Maguy had to find a way to control the beast. “One of the hardest things for us to understand as a team was that email was a massive time vampire," he says. "You can become addicted to it, hitting refresh every two minutes, waiting for the next surprise to come in. Before you know it, your day is over and all you've done is answered emails. This creates a culture wrapped around being reactive as opposed to proactive. Software like Basecamp and Slack allow you to control the information and volume and timing of notifications you get bombarded with, so you can focus on being proactive. Even better than that, you have an information structure that is easier to navigate. Too many of us were wasting time hunting through email archives or searching for attachments.”

There is a reluctance to control email in many organizations, but I sense this is changing as the email tonnage mounts. It’s not just the frustration and wear and tear on employees, it’s the productivity and performance implications of having a third of the day and more tied up in email, which is the average for people getting more than 100 emails a day. A study done by Intel found that the cost of email overload in lost productivity for a company with 50,000 workers is a stunning $1 billion a year.

The real emergency is the colossal waste of time, resources, and anxiety burned up on an e-fallacy.

If you would like to get the email, device, and interruption siege under control at your organization and dramatically improve productivity in the process, click below for details on our productivity, work-life balance, and information management programs.

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Tags: email overload, information overload, reducing email, email and productivity, productivity programs

The Brain and Productivity Drain of Unbounded Devices, Interruptions, and Information Overload

Posted by Joe Robinson

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DESPITE A FLOOD of technology investment in the workplace in recent years, productivity gains are at their lowest since 1982. Economists are scratching their heads, trying to figure out why. In the past, technology improvements were followed by big productivity gains. Why not this time? A lot of us under the thumb of 24/7 technology know the answer to that one. 

Digital overload. Too much technology has swamped the human capacity to deal with it. Instead of helping us get our jobs done, it’s making our work harder and longer. 

THE QUAGMIRE OF UNBOUNDED TECHNOLOGY

It’s on display every time I conduct a work-life balance, stress management, or time management (Managing Crazy Busy Work) training, which I did last week at the Supply Chain Leaders in Action conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. Executives from Pepsi to Starbucks to Microsoft told me they were drowning in messaging and digital interruptions to the point they can’t keep up with it all and feel like they’re constantly falling behind.

One executive told me he feels a semblance of control if he can get his email box down to 200. A couple people in the training were getting more than 300 messages a day. That means doing email at home to catch up, which drives exhaustion, crowds out recovery options, and grinds down performance.

Technology is helpful when humans are in charge of it. Most of the time these days, we’re not. We’re at the mercy of unbounded in-boxes, information overload, and distractions. 

How many of you have been known to sleep with your significant other who’s not your partner? Your smartphone. Based on my experiences, it’s well more than a few.

We have lost one of the most basic management tools: boundaries. The devices are running us, instead of the other way around. As a result, most people are in retaliatory mode all day, reacting to what’s coming at them—acting before they think. That drives time frenzy, crisis mentality, overwhelm, and poor time management, not to mention bad performance, because our chief productivity tool, attention, is under assault.

WHO'S IN CHARGE?

What we don’t understand about digital devices is that they are supposed to work for us, to help us, not barrage our working memory and survival equipment all day. We're supposed to be in charge.

All the bongs, chirps, chimes, and pulses play to what’s known as bottom-up attention. That’s what happens when you hear a loud noise. Your attention immediately shifts from whatever you were focused on to see what the threat is. It sets off the startle response, a stressor, interruptor, and all-around saboteur of working memory.

Intel estimated the cost of lost productivity per year due to email overload at $1 billion for a company with 50,000 workers. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can put humans back in charge with a set of rules and guidelines that rein in the abuse.

A solution is long overdue. Gloria Mark at the University of California at Irvine says that 10 years ago, we used to shift between work spheres—online to offline and back again—every three minutes. Now it’s every 45 seconds. Her research shows that it takes an average of up to 25 minutes after answering an email for someone to get back to what they were doing before the interruption. We open a browser, talk to a colleague, and self-distract after an interruption.

BLOWING UP WORKING MEMORY

Interruptions throw us seriously off track. They do that by blowing up working memory, that fragile collection of germinal thoughts that we can hang on to for only a few seconds and that is at the heart of self-discipline and concentration. Research has shown that interruptions can slow us down by up to 27% and make everything we do seem more difficult than it is.

Interruptions can lower IQ up to 10 points. This is why we make suspect decisions under the influence of distractions.

Multitasking, which is really a misnomer (you can’t do two high cognitive tasks at one time), reduces productivity more than 40%, from all the switching back and forth that brain neurons have to do, according to research at the University of Michigan. And, of course, there are all the mistakes that come from multitasking, or what it really should be called—simultaneous inattention.

The problem is worse than we think, since we don’t understand the impact that unbounded devices and interruptions are having on our brains and self-regulatory equipment. Interruptions erode impulse control. The more you check email, the more you have to check it.

We are losing ability to regulate impulsivity. Without self-regulation, the discipline needed to avoid temptation and be able to focus, we’re backsliding into addictive behavior. As Gayle Porter at Rutgers found in her research, technology is as addicting as any substance.

EVERY EMAIL RESULTS IN SIX

In a poll at my Scottsdale training, the biggest distraction and time sink was email, which is growing at a rate of 25% a year. The volume is not sustainable. Every email results in six emails, three going, three coming back, as we try to tease out what someone is saying and find a polite way to exit the conversation. The good news is that we can do something about email, interruptions, and multitasking. We can create boundaries, rules of the digital road that restore control. 

For instance, we can create manual checking schedules, which reseearchers have documented increase productivity and reduce chaos. We can make sure everyone knows that if something is an emergency, then that requires a phone call. This way people don't have to be checking email every five minutes for fear of missing an emergency.

Does your organization have an email or interruption management strategy? Our programs provide the tools to get the deluge under control, including an Email Etiquette Guidebook and Interruption Norms Rulebook.

Most organizations today are operating without norms and standards, which leads to digital abuse and triage mode all day.

Our productivity and time management training give your team the best practices vetted by the research to keep the productivity killer of unbounded technology at bay. When we develop new practices and norms and address bottlenecks, the chaos and stress ends, minds and working memory refocus, and more work gets done in less time.

Learn how to rein in information overload for your team. Click the button below for details on how our Work-Life Balance and Managing Crazy Busy Work time management trainings can make your organization less crazed and more effective.

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Tags: email overload, overwhelm, productivity programs, feeling overwhelmed, information overload, time management programs

Beat Email Overload and Overwhelm by Setting the Terms of Engagement with Devices

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Face-to-face conversations these days more often than not mean a face-to-scalp session, as you speak to the hair or pate of the person looking down at their phone. You can almost say anything, because they’re really not paying attention to you. “Hey, your car just got towed.” “Uh-huh.”

They hear human sounds in the world beyond their screen, but ask them to repeat it back, and they would be stumped. It’s not just the device that is impeding discourse, it’s the type of attention that is being brought to bear—divided and distracted.

MULTITASKING SLOWS BRAIN NEURONS

The reflex is to both look at the phone and listen to the conversation, but doing both things at once is impossible. You can’t do more than one high cognitive task at a time, especially anything involving language, because there is only one neural channel for language to flow through.

As a result, you are either doing one or the other task and switching back and forth between them. That switching has costs—time to figure out where you were on the task each time there's a switch, fractured attention, inability to retain information, rote behavior that results in mistakes, and stress.

Multitasking forces attention down from the top floors of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, to the rote realms, like the hippocampus, which act on muscle memory. Thinking is sidelined for default action. Operating on rote mode is highly unproductive, as the data on multitasking shows. Productivity can drop from 40% to more than double that, according to David Meyer, a multitasking expert at the University of Michigan.

Why would you want to work so ineffectively and scatter-brained? You wouldn’t—if you were thinking about it. But, alas, you’re not thinking about it. Almost none of us are. We are simply reacting, following orders from devices and interrupters. That means we are using a form of attention, bottom-up attention, that undermines focus and engagement and drives loss of control, stress, and overwhelm.

THE NOISEMAKER REFLEX

Bottom-up attention is a survival instinct. When a car backfires, we stop whatever we’re paying attention to and focus on the source of the threatening sound. Blood pressure increases, thoughts are constricted to the intrusion, and we lose the fragile thought chunks held together in short-term memory that we need to get our work done. Then we have to reconstruct later what it was we were doing before the interruption.

Research by U. C. Irvine’s Gloria Mark shows that it can take up to 25 minutes for your thoughts to get back to wherever they were before bottom-up attention took hold. Think of the hit to productivity that delivers multiple times a day.

The reason so many feel overwhelmed today is that attention is being driven, not by what our brains were designed for—selecting one thing to attend to—but by the bottom-up world of the noisemakers and flashers. The chimes, dings, chirps, and pulses, along with visual notifications (impossible to resist flashing lights; could be a threat) that keep us in startle response mode, a defensive posture, instead of on the attention offensive.

The key to restoring focus and productivity to the day is bringing back the kind of attention we need to get work done and concentrate: top-down attention. How do we do that? By setting the terms of engagement with the bottom-up brigade.

That means creating strategies that put top-down attention in charge as much as possible. When we use the ability we are programmed with, to select and pay attention to one thing at a time, studies show we have more focus, less stress, we like what we’re doing more, and we remember it longer.

BOTTOM-UP DICTATOR

All of that good stuff comes from full absorption in what we’re doing, from something that used to be known as undivided attention. Reclaiming it requires that we deploy perimeters around the unbounded realm of bottom-up intruders. Like a city without traffic lights, a workplace without boundaries on the incoming is anarchy, a field day for bottom-up dictatorship.

When we’re not choosing what to pay attention to, and just reacting all day, we feel out of control, which is the root cause of overwhelm—a belief we can’t cope with demands. This is all your ancient brain needs to flip the danger switch of the stress response. It’s a huge attention saboteur, exploding working memory for a false emergency that constricts thoughts to the perceived crisis that isn’t one. The definition of stress is high demands and no control, what’s known as “latitude,” over the work environment.

When we select what we pay attention to and when, we have command and control to keep overwhelm at bay. We can set the terms of engagement with adjustments to how we work, by checking email at designated times and keeping it turned off otherwise, by shutting off the noisemakers on our email and phone, by creating no-interruption “focus” zones that allow us to concentrate by using 100%, undivided top-down attention, and by many other strategies that restore control and attention.

The average corporate email user gets 109 bottom-up emails a day. Business texts have increased 67%. An interruption of just 4.4 seconds can triple the risk of errors. How sustainable is this path and at what risk to safety and bottom-lines? There is a better way than terminal startle response all day. Putting the humans back in control.

If your team could use more top-down attention and less bottom-up, more focus and less overwhelm, we can get you there with our Work-Life Balance and Managing Crazy-Busy Workload training programs. If you would like to learn more, click the button below for more details. Proactive self-management is the answer to overwhelm and growing attention deficit.

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Tags: email overload, increasing productivity, interruptions and productivity, overwhelm, information overload programs, information overload, stress management, attention management, productivity and attention

When Working Memory Is Overwhelmed, You Are Too

Posted by Joe Robinson

Overwhelm and working memory

Everybody hates a nag, and that especially goes for the one inside our heads that keeps bugging us about all the to-do’s that have to be tackled NOW. The unfinished items swirl around and around, like a cloud of flies orbiting the cranium, interrupting focus and helping to fuel a belief that we are overwhelmed.

Productivity is a function of how much attention we have on a single task at a time, so any time our thoughts are straying to other projects or hurry-worry to get to the next task, we’re not paying full attention, and that undermines performance. The human brain was designed to do one thing at a time, to use our brains as processing centers, not storage devices.

THOUGHT LIMITS

One of the keys to getting anything done is working memory. Also known as short-term memory, working memory is a temporary holding pen for ideas/thought “chunks” that we are actively using to complete an action at any given time. It has very limited storage capacity over a very brief period of time, thought to be a matter of seconds. It was once thought that we could keep seven thought “chunks” in the brain at one time for working memory use, but researchers now believe the real capacity is three to five items, a core known as the central working memory faculty.

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In a study examining how much subjects could retain in short-term memory in a visual test of shapes and squares, researchers J. Scott Saults and Nelson Cowan (2007) found that subjects could hang on to no more than four items at a time. It’s important to point out that we are not talking about the capacity to do four separate actions at one time, as in multitasking, which is impossible for mortals, but merely to hold that many thought elements in mind while at work on a task.

Researchers aren’t sure why working memories are so limited, but theorize that it was too expensive, in both energy and time, to have excess information getting in the way of processing and action. Evolution appears to have selected out the reverse of information overload—focused selection—as a survival instinct.

Of course, just about everything these days is conspiring against focus, from information overload to stress, which can seriously reduce working memory performance by sidetracking your immediate attention to a perceived emergency.

THE INCOMPLETE LOOP

With working memory so constrained, it’s easy to see how the to-do nag can interfere with the task at hand as it interrupts short-term memory and plays havoc with recall of our primary task. Productivity guru David Allen noticed that “incompletes,” as he calls them, were a big drag on performance, and it led to the central principle of his “Getting Things Done” organizing system. He observed that unfinished tasks will harass in a constant loop unless the item is finished—or the brain is persuaded that you are on the way to completion.

It was the inspiration for his concept of the “next action.” The best way to keep to-do nagging at bay, he argues, is to let the mind know you’re on the case by jotting down the next physical action for each item on your list, breaking tasks down into a series of specific steps. That stops the loop and the brain lets go.

In recent years Allen’s gut instinct was confirmed by science. Florida State University researchers E. J. Masicampo and Roy Baumeister found that unfinished goals interfere with the ability to complete tasks and that writing down plans to finish a task released subjects so they could do their jobs undistracted by to-do nags.

Improving time management has a lot to do with how we manage short-term memory, that brief period of focus within which we get stuff done. That means sealing it off as much as possible, not just from our own incompletes, but also from the siege of electronic intrusions and interruptions, which studies show fracture working memory, and, therefore, productivity.

Interruptions blow up the tenuous hold we have on the three to five items in working memory. We forget thought associations we had before the interruption, or where we were going.

AVOIDING DISRUPTIONS

This is known as a ‘disruption,” when performance plummets because it takes longer to complete the task as you try to piece together the vanished items that were in short-term memory. Think how many disruptions you go through in a day and the downtime and mistakes that result when you try to piece together again what you were doing. 

If you have to take an interruption, finish the task or thought you are on first, and make a note about where you are going with the thought train. That prevents disruptions and helps you get back to where you were without a long backtrack.

Other keys to retaining working memory and avoiding overwhelm are setting the terms of engagement with devices—checking manually at set times, turning off noisemakers and notifications—as well as keeping distractions, such as that bowl of Haagen Dazs or the conflict you had with someone out of your precious few-second realm of working memory. 

When we break away from distractions and intrusions through better planning, organizing and prioritizing and dive deep into the absorption of the moment, we find a realm of focus far from the frazzle of overwhelm and self-badgering where we can be on the same page with, well, ourselves.

If your company would like to avoid the frenzy and frazzle of overwhelm and work less harried and more effectively, click here for more on our productivity trainings and a smarter way to work.

 

 

 

 

Tags: stress management and change, employee engagement programs, increasing productivity, overwhelm, productivity programs, managing interruptions, email management, employee training, stress, information overload, productivity, stress management

Information Overload: The Art of Interruption Management

Posted by Joe Robinson

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IT JUST MAY BE the crime of the century. Our minds, thoughts and chief productivity tool--attention--are being stolen by a thief operating with absolute impunity: incessant, unbounded interruptions. An ever-growing volume of intruders--e-mail, texts, apps, phone calls, social media alerts--combined with assaults from increasingly time-panicked humans, are leaving few places safe for chirp-, chime- or ding-free concentration.

Information overload, which includes the recovery time from unnecessary interruptions, cost the U.S. economy $997 billion in 2010, according to Overload!: How Too Much Information is Hazardous to your Organization by Jonathan B. Spira. An Intel study found that lost productivity from information overload alone would cost $1 billion per year for a company its size.

Chronic intrusions shrink attention spans, drive stress by burning up mental and emotional resources and trigger mistakes. An interruption averaging 2.8 seconds--say, one of those blinking notifications in the corner of your computer screen--can double the risk of error, a study by researchers at Michigan State University and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory found. Increase the duration of the interruption to 4.4 seconds, and you triple the chance of a mistake.

Interruptions play havoc with working memory, fuel overwhelm, and undermine intellect. A study that measured the effects of forced interruptions on resident surgeons performing a simulated laparoscopic cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal) found that surgical mistakes occurred 44 percent of the time with the distractions, and only about 6 percent without. Interruptive questions triggered the most errors, followed by sidebar conversations.

There's a reason airline pilots have mandatory no-interruption zones just before takeoff and landing: Federal regulations prohibit any activity--from nonessential conversations with crew or others in the cockpit to reading nonessential publications--that could distract a pilot during critical phases of the flight.

So, what are the main sources of intrusion, how do they affect us, and what can be done to curb them?

DIGITAL DISTURBANCES

The average businessperson receives and sends about 109 e-mails per day, and that rate is growing each year by 7 percent, according to studies by technology market research firm The Radicati Group. Instant messages are increasing 11 percent, and texting, once confined to the nonwork realm, is bombarding offices, with 67 percent of professionals saying they text for business, according to messaging service HeyWire Business. How interruptive is this? Mobile Marketing Association reports that 90 percent of all texts are read within three minutes.

"It's a huge problem," says Dr. Edward Hallowell, a Massachusetts psychiatrist and co-author of Driven to Distraction, which chronicles the siege on attention. "It's the newest addiction. There are in-patient centers now for people with technology addiction. Marriages break up."

"There's a thrill to it," adds Winifred Gallagher, author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. "Your texts and e-mails are like video games. There's a stimulus and rewards."

The surge of texts and social media notifications in recent years may be leading to a tipping point of terminal distraction and always-on availability. Michael Salem, co-founder and CEO of Vorex, a Plano, Texas-based provider of cloud-based professional services automation software, says he gets 1,000 messages per day. "I'm overwhelmed," he admits. "Responding is a daily thing, 24 hours a day." For a while, he says, he barely slept, taking calls from global users of his product from his bed. His health started to suffer; he gained weight and became anxious from the never-ending assault.

"I counted recently," says Matthew Bellows, CEO of Boston-based Yesware, an e-mail productivity service for salespeople. "I have 22 inboxes, from e-mail to LinkedIn. The idea that I'm supposed to monitor and troll through these is absurd. I get hundreds of e-mails a day. Interruptions and distractions are the biggest drain on productivity for the modern office worker."

THE BATTLE IN THE BRAIN

The volume of intrusions today is unsustainable by any metric: productivity, engagement, physiology or common sense. So what can we do about it? The first step is to understand the impact of constant interruptions on our brain neurons.

Out of all the things your brain could focus on right now, your attention at this moment is on this sentence. This is because you are implementing what's known as top-down attention, in which you choose what to take note of. You set the terms of engagement, giving you control and concentration--that is, if you can block out the distractions of the other kind of attention: bottom-up, which is dictated by something or someone else. Bottom-up attention is part of our survival equipment. When you hear a siren or a car backfire, your attention instantly shifts to the potential threat. The cavalcade of electronic noisemakers--e-mails, texts, IMs, phone calls, notifications--are all bottom-up intruders. They arouse defenses and hijack concentration.

It's a battle that's daunting but winnable. "You are the boss of what's in your head," Gallagher points out. "Attention is a tool, and you can take charge of it. It's a matter of knowing when you want to use your top-down attention, and then you have to suppress the bottom-up stimuli. Otherwise, you become a victim of stimuli."

Interruptions trigger detours that tax working memory and increase the time it takes to accomplish tasks, all of which drives stress. When an intrusion occurs, "it sets off a chain of random events, with people switching activities," explains Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, and co-author of a study on the subject. On average, she says, "you work on two intervening tasks before you get back to the original task." For example, you might be at work on a marketing project one minute, then shift to an e-mail from a customer, then off on a trip to LinkedIn.

Mark followed 35 managers, engineers and project leaders for three days. She found that the average time people spent on a single task before being interrupted or switching to something else was a whopping three minutes. The amount of time they worked on a device before switching was two minutes, 11 seconds.

The interruption blitz is held in place by fallacies that the human brain is an inexhaustible well that can be crammed with an unlimited amount of information, perform multiple functions simultaneously and switch tasks without decrease in output. The shocking truth is that our gray matter has limits, from working memory to data volume to neural channels that permit us to perform only one high-cognitive task at a time.

Interruptions undermine effortful control, which reflects the ability to regulate impulse control. The more interruptions one has, the more they erode the self-regulation equipment. Feel like you have to check your e-mail even though you just checked it five minutes ago? That's your impulse control and attention span on the blink. Interruptions shred the ability to self-regulate everything from checking e-mail to consuming Häagen-Dazs or Jack Daniel's.

ATTENTION DEFICIT

This is why technology is so addictive. It can destroy the ability to control impulsivity, which means more frequent message checking and web browsing and shorter attention spans. That, in turn, leads to more distractibility and less ability to see tasks through to completion--exactly the sort of symptoms psychiatrist Hallowell began to see in the '90s in patients who thought they had attention-deficit disorder.

But people with true ADD are born with the condition. So Hallowell's patients' fractured attention was a byproduct of something else--an affliction that mimics ADD, set off by interruption and information overload "filling our heads with a cacophony of mental noise" until the brain "loses its ability to attend fully and thoughtfully to anything," Hallowell notes in Driven to Distraction. He dubbed the condition "attention deficit trait."

Once high-producers, people with this condition flit from one thing to the next and find themselves falling behind in their work, which in turn increases time panic and anxiety as they try to catch up. Thus the constant disruptions feed a fear of being overwhelmed and not being able to cope, a signal to the ancient brain to set off the stress response.

"I can feel my heart racing," says Karen Swim, who launched her Sterling Heights, Mich.-based public relations firm, Words For Hire, 10 years ago. She used to be able to manage the electronic flood, but she says the increase in texting over the last couple of years has pushed her coping resources over the edge. "There are days when I feel I have to stop and breathe. It feels like you're on a treadmill that keeps speeding up, and you can't keep up."

THE NO-INTERRUPTION ZONE

Everyone knows the volume of intrusions is counterproductive, but attempting to moderate the flow strikes fear in the hearts of business owners and managers. It shouldn't.

More entrepreneurs would crack down on interruptions if they knew how much it was costing them, says Dan Adams, CEO of Woburn, Mass.-based New England Network Solutions, which provides computer services to small and midsize companies. "Business owners don't know how much time is being lost to these distractions," says Adams, who installs firewalls to track and monitor internet and social media use.

As relentless as the siege is, entrepreneurs and employees don't have to throw up their hands. There is a range of tools available to control the onslaught, improve productivity, and along the way build in stress management controls.

Strategies range from curbing e-mails to limiting personal pop-ins from colleagues. U.S. Cellular, Intel and professional-services giant Deloitte are among large firms that have attempted no-e-mail days--not mandating a complete shutdown of electronic messages, but encouraging in-person or voice communication, especially among co-workers--which may cut down on unnecessary distractions.

"Without uninterrupted time you can't listen to someone, write good code or think," says Yesware's Bellows, who once spent a year at a Buddhist retreat meditating for hours a day. "Those tasks take concentration and focus that is quickly taken away by devices."

INTERRUPTIONS

Bellows is trying to stem the tide of interruptions. Instead of interrupting one another with questions, Yesware employees send messages via a HipChat.com intranet page that colleagues can review on their own time, when they have a break in the action. Bellows blocks out uninterrupted time on his calendar to think, urges everyone to close laptops and not check messages during meetings and reads and responds to his e-mail in designated chunks a few times a day.

The latter strategy in particular can dramatically reduce interruptions. If your e-mail automatically checks and feeds you messages every five minutes, that's a potential of 96 interruptions over an eight-hour day. However, if you manually check it every 45 minutes, that cuts the total to 11. Researchers at Oklahoma State University say the most productive checking schedule is four times per day. UC Irvine's Mark recommends that you plow through as much e-mail as you can in three scheduled periods per day; the rest of the time, it should be turned off.

Other interventions aim to block off no-interruption zones. Leslie A. Perlow, Konosuke Matsushita professor of leadership at Harvard Business School, developed the "quiet time" program, which walls off all intrusions during certain times of the day.

She deployed the method at a software company whose engineers were having trouble creating products without working nights and weekends. After a period of investigation, Perlow discovered that the engineers were being interrupted so often they didn't have time to think and couldn't get enough done during regular hours. With everyone falling behind schedule, a crisis mentality developed, in which people felt entitled to interrupt anyone at any time.

Perlow's solution was to set aside a certain portion of the day, before 11 a.m. and after 3 p.m., for uninterrupted work. (Normal interruptions could take place during that four-hour window.) The results: 59 percent of engineers reported that their productivity increased in the morning interruption-free zone, and 65 percent said the same for the afternoon. With heads cleared, 41 percent even reported that their productivity jumped during the interruption portion of the day.

Harman Singh likes the idea of quiet time. The founder and CEO of WizIQ--who gets upward of 200 messages each day--says he's been thinking about the need for rules to control the flood at his online education company. "It's gotten crazy," he says. "I don't get enough time to think. It's a menace."

His most frustrating distraction: mobile messaging via WhatsApp. He has considered getting off the app but is concerned about how investors who contact him that way might react. As with most thoughts of managing interruptions, there is fear. Would they respect boundaries? But Singh believes that ultimately his investors would rather have him engaged in productive thought and running his company than buried in social media and needless communication.

If you would like to learn how to implement these and many other tools to create a more productive office click on the button below for more information.

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Tags: stress management programs, email overload, information overload, overwhelm, productivity programs, productivity and stress, managing interruptions, reduce distractions, multitasking and stress, information overload programs, email management, interruption management

Attention and Employee Engagement

Posted by Joe Robinson

Focused team demonstrates employee engagement

With the growing advances in brain research, we’re getting a much better picture, literally, of when our command center works and when it doesn’t. Researchers say MRI scans of fatigued brains show so little activity, they look like they are sound asleep.

I’m sure you know that feeling around 4 p.m., when it seems like you’re swimming in molasses, and you have to expend twice the effort to get something accomplished that you need when you are fresh. The reality is that there is a limited period that the brain can stay focused without wandering or going into brownout mode. Researchers say 90-minutes to three hours of time and task, and the brain has to step back from task to reset.

The instinct to never pause and go to the mental wall may be admirable, but it’s not productive—and it’s one of the best ways to kill employee engagement. Studies show that engagement is not so much an attitude as a state of motivated attentiveness.

FULL ABSORPTION

One of the key hallmarks of engagement is absorption, full concentration in the moment. Pushing gray matter to the edge insures there won’t be much of that. Fried, overloaded brains are characterized by tension, inability to focus, slower processing, and an inability to handle complex tasks.

Even if dedication and commitment are there, engaged employees can’t deliver extra effort when mental resources are spent. Fatigue and exhaustion also undercut another key metric of engagement, the physical, energetic resources of vigor.

There is a fallacy in the knowledge economy that, because we are just sitting on our behinds, that the brain is a kind of unlimited well. We’re not being physically taxed, so the mind can just keep going. Brain scientists I’ve spoken with have told me that the brain goes down well before the body. That means, so does the chief productivity tool, attention, and the prospects for engagement.

FRACTURING FOCUS

Any organization that wants engaged employees has to have attentive employees, yet everything about the nature of work today undermines that—unbounded interruptions, information overload, social media intrusions. It’s not how much volume we can cram into our heads, but how we manage demands that leads to the focus necessary for engaged performance. Yet few organizations have tied shrinking attention to engagementm si more and more intrusions pour in.

It’s often thought that engagement can be measured by the amount of commitment to the organization, but that’s not enough to drive engagement, which is a function of the specific effort an employee brings to the task. As Alan Saks at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto put it in one study, “Engagement has to do with how individuals employ themselves in the performance of their job,” not attachment to the organization.

It’s great when people are dedicated to the cause, but, if they have the attention span of a gnat, there won’t be much in the way of engagement. Disengagement is more like it, and, in fact, that is the trend these days as attention spans shrink, thanks to nonstop interruptions and information overload.

Leaders need to be alert for the signs of disengagement—withdrawal, absenteeism, personal conflicts, falling behind schedule, burnout—when attention vanishes in the face of excessive demands without compensating latitude or choice. Researchers say that burnout is a marker for the opposite of engagement’s dedication, absorption and vigor. Instead, there is estrangement from the goals of the organization and a downward spiral of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and futility.

THE OPPOSITE OF BURNOUT: ENGAGEMENT

That leads to the logic that less burnout can promote more attentive employees who have the potential to be engaged. What areas do organizations have to adjust to reduce the burnout track and promote more focus? Saks points to research from burnout scholar Christina Maslach and associates. “Job engagement is associated with a sustainable workload, feelings of choice and control, appropriate recognition and reward, a supportive work community, fairness and justice, and meaningful and valued work.”

People who have a sustainable workload are naturally going to be able to bring more focus to the task than if they have depleted their coping resources. Choice and control keep stress away, which prevents the brain from having focus constricted to the narrow fixation of a perceived false crisis. Recognition and supportive work means that attention is appreciated and nurtured, while fairness and meaningful work internalize the importance of doing quality, attentive work.

So much of the way we work today is simply autopilot, reflexively responding to the demands without managing them. The research shows that engagement, and productivity, are not the result of brain drain, of cognitive feats of endurance, but the opposite, promoting behaviors and policies that allow minds to find the space to focus.

That’s hard to engineer when most people are in a state of triage all day. Yet there are other choices than triage, other approaches to the way we do our work that are actually based on the evidence of what has been proven to be productive. From no-interruption zones to email management to the power of full-absorption goals, there are a wealth of tools that can bring about the gains in commitment, attention, and motivation that prime the pump for engagement.

This is where development programs can make a big difference, providing a path out of reflex mode to practices that are the most engaging and productive. If you are interested in increasing the attention, engagement, and productivity of your employees, click on the button below for more details.

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Tags: increasing productivity, work life balance programs, employee engagement, employee engagement programs, information overload, employee engagement speakers, employee engagement training, employee engagement programsburnout

Beat Email Overload with the Email Etiquette Rulebook

Posted by Joe Robinson

Caffeine break to fuel more email triage

There are a lot of reasons why email has overwhelmed capacity to deal with it, but the main one is that it’s easy. It’s easy to click the send button, easy to not get up from your seat, easy to avoid speaking with someone in person about an issue. But that convenience is an illusion, because we don’t see the cumulative blowback. As we discussed in the Working Smarter blog last week, every email results in six emails—three going, three coming back, so we need a few more gallons of caffeine every day to triage through the mess. 

Cutting email tonnage, not only opens up more time to get our work done, it also reduces the damage to the chief productivity tool: attention. Managing email is really about managing the interruptions that fracture attention, as we’re forced to shift from primary task to secondary items, most of the time unrelated to what we’re doing.

The inability to keep attention on a task for longer than a nanosecond, not surprisingly, affects the quality of our work. Distracted minds don’t see the big picture, make decisions too quickly, send curt messages, can’t focus enough to produce innovative solutions, and have little semblance of work-life balance.

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Growing stacks of unread email also fuel overwhelm and a belief that things are out of control. That drives a perception you can’t cope with the avalanche, which sets off the stress response. Taking back control over email shuts down the feeling of chaos and with it, stress that drives poor decisions and health problems. So controlling email is a key stress management strategy.

SET THE TERMS OF ENGAGEMENT

We can get control back by choosing when we interact with email—by setting the terms of engagement with our devices, by checking email manually and turning off all the dingers and noisemakers. That means creating some boundaries—rules in a world where there are none. The way forward is determining limits/norms for information management in every team, department, and organization.

Unlike the telephone, which was adopted over a long enough period that we were able to develop rules for how to use it, e-tools arrived so suddenly and overwhelmingly that they were running the show before anyone knew how to use them effectively. But the good news is that, since there are no rules, they’re up for grabs. That means we can set some.

It’s amazing what can happen with a little law and order. Harvard’s Leslie Perlow did an experiment with a software company whose employees were working nights and weekends to get products completed on time. She instituted a program there called Quiet Time. For four hours a day, two in the morning, two in the late afternoon, there was to be no messaging, so people could concentrate and get their work done. The rest of the day people could revert to messaging as usual. The program resulted in productivity increases of 59% and 65% in the two message-free zones, and jumped 43% even in the period with normal interruptions, because minds were more focused and less harried. The company was able to complete a new product in record time without staff needing to work nights and weekends.

THE SECOND LAW OF EMAIL REDUCTION

Last week's blog introduced the first Law of Email Reduction ("Spay and Neuter to Cut Volume"): Do more in-person messaging. Our second email law is:

Rules for etool use control the abuse of email.

It holds that rules for e-tool use rein in the chaos and reduce the amount of time blown on messaging. It’s not hard to come up with ideas for email rules. We all know the stuff that drives us crazy about email. When I asked what rules they would like to see placed on email usage, managers at a large aviation firm licked their chops and gave me this list, which you may want to take some notes on:

• Deactivate the ‘reply-all’ function

• Develop a weekend code of ethics restricting email to emergencies

• Disable the ghost email alert notification

• Never expect an immediate response from an email

• Pick up the phone and call

• No emails between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.

• Only send email if there’s an action required

• Don’t send one-line “thank you” and “got it” messages

 

THE MOST IMPORTANT RULE OF EMAIL MANAGEMENT

No doubt, there are more than a few rules on that list you’d like for your own e-tool handbook. Here’s one of the most important rules that should be a part of any email etiquette book:

Keep email software turned off and check messages manually at set schedules.

There’s no reason to have computers and devices chiming like deranged glockenspiels all day, or blinking those annoying notifications in the corner of your monitor. Turning off message software will shut down the sound and light circus and keep intrusiveness to a minimum. You choose when you’re going to be interrupted, rather than leaving it to anyone with a random thought.

Some 68% of folks keep Outlook or Entourage on autocheck all day, checking continuously. One study (Jackson, 2003) found, that if you keep your system on autocheck every five minutes, you have a potential of 96 interruptions in the course of the day! You can slash that down to 11, if you check mail manually every 45 minutes.

That’s still a lot of checking. You can put a fence around email by restricting yourself to a few retrieval and sending times each day. Manual checking at specific schedules offers the least interruptions and maximum productivity. Try using what researchers have identified as the most optimum email schedules. Holding email to two checks a day results in significantly fewer hours worked daily compared to processing email continuously (Trafton, 2003, Jackson 2003). The most productive schedule is twice or four times a day, according to researchers at Oklahoma State.

When we control the checking, we stop the anarchy. There are a number of other rules that can be easily implemented in any team, department, or organization.

If you would like more rules to help manage email and are interested in an information management workshop at your organization, click the button below for more details. And send me your thoughts on email rules you would like to see.

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There is light at the end of the email in-box.

Tags: work life balance programs, email overload, information overload, productivity and email, email and stress, email and work-life balance, information management programs

Email Overload: How to Cut the Volume Now

Posted by Joe Robinson

Down for the count with email overload

The confessions began to tumble out. One woman at a work-life balance workshop I was leading in New York raised her hand and said sheepishly, “I take my smartphone to bed.” 

“So do I,” chimed in another consultant quickly. “I’ve been sleeping with my phone for years,” offered a third woman.

This is what I call unrequited love. You give your devices undivided love and attention, and what do you get for it? The attention span of a gnat. Constant interruptions. And chronic stress that suppresses your immune system and takes your body down.

No matter what line of work you’re in these days, chances are good there’s only one business you’re really in—the clicking business—checking, sending and receiving piles of email from anyone with a random thought in their heads. How many hours of your day are sucked up by out-of-control messaging?

SPAY AND NEUTER YOUR EMAIL

It’s worth doing the calculating, because your best years are disappearing down the black hole of unbounded email. The average corporate user burns up three-plus hours a day on email, 133 emails and 77 Instant Messages. That adds up to a total of 100 DAYS a year doing nothing but email. That spills over into the nights and early mornings, making any semblance of work-life balance a mirage.

And then there’s the financial cost of email overload—all that lost productivity. Intel estimates that for a company with 50,000 knowledge workers the tab is $1 billion in lost productivity from email overload. Intel, along with Google, Microsoft and Xerox, formed the Information Overload Research Group to fight what they call “email pollution,” a good term for this blight blocking out work and life and cranking up stress.

The approach to email overload so far has been to just react to all the incoming. Get up earlier, stay later. But that’s not viable in a 24/7 world where the avalanche keeps on coming. As any engineer could tell you, we have structural limits.

To cut down on the deluge, you have to make changes that will actually reduce the volume of email. Email is the electronic rabbit, multiplying like oversexed cottontails. Every email has offspring, and they have offspring. A single message creates six messages—three going, three coming back, say researchers. Even at the standard rate of three minutes an email, that’s 18 minutes down the tubes for every email you send. Add it up. We have to spay and neuter our email.

I talked to a VP at a major technology firm in San Diego who gets more than 250 emails a day. He starts at 5 in the morning with two hours of email at home before going to work, then spends several hours more on message duty after he gets into his office. “It just seems like I can never catch up,” he told me, looking completely drained.

The sooner we can see email for the rabbit it is, the quicker we can keep the population down. Email plays on the social animal’s need for positive reinforcement, even if it’s just a canned reply-all mail or spam on the other end of the line. We have to understand how we are being played by this dynamic and use but not abuse the technology.

THE MORE YOU CHECK EMAIL, THE MORE YOU HAVE TO CHECK IT

In a study on email addiction, Rutgers University researcher Gayle Porter found that technology can be just as addicting as chemical or substance abuse. Have you ever had that feeling that you have to check email though you just checked it five minutes ago? That’s your impulse control out of control, thanks to the interruptions, which erode a part of your executive attention function that regulates impulsivity. The more you check email, the more you have to check it.

With friends like yourself around, who needs enemies?

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To actually cut the volume of email, we have to start reducing the tonnage. There are three ways to do that. We’ll cover the first law of email reduction in this blog.

Email Law # 1: Do More In-Person Messages

More phone and face-to-face contact seems like heresy, but the evidence at companies such as Deloitte & Touche and U. S. Cellular, which are mandating less email and more phone and face-to-face messaging, shows that reduced email increases productivity and builds rapport and relationships. Even former email addicts have come around to become true believers and are increasing their productivity through in-person messaging with co-workers.

Email is a handy tool to set up a phone conversation, in which you can handle all the issues in one go, instead of going back and forth in the usual volley of trying to extract the piece of information you need from someone who keeps sending fragments of the answer you’re looking for. You fire off an email to coordinate a time to speak on the phone or meet live. You can mention, if you like, that you’re on an email reduction drive and that this is a way to save both of you multiple emails.

This method combines the best of both worlds, using email for a specific and limited reason, and the phone to nail down all the back and forths that would normally be perpetuated by the email cottontails. You are respecting your colleagues’ time this way, and they will appreciate it.

RISING TO THE IMPORTANCE OF A PHONE MESSAGE

Email has overwhelmed our lives because it’s convenient. We don’t have to physically interrupt someone with a call or pop-in. In the old days, the message had to rise to the importance of a phone call before it entered the universe. It helped to limit messages to the most important ones. There are zero inhibitions to clicking email.

A manager at an aerospace company told me at a work-life workshop I conducted that he’s gotten his email-checking down to twice a day, while colleagues are indulging 20 times that often. He makes it clear that his preferred mode of communication is the phone and that an email needs to be worth sending before clicking. When he volunteered his solution before a group of fellow managers, their jaws hit the floor. He looked calm, unbeleaguered, in control of his destiny. He’d reined in the abuse with boundaries that worked.

If most of your mail is coming from outside your office, add “No Reply Necessary” to the subject line or body of the message to let the other person know they don’t have to get back to you. If the bulk of mail is coming from your team or department, use the 100-Foot Rule. Get up from your desk and deliver the message in person to anyone within 100 feet of your desk, and then expand it to 200 or 500 feet for a little extra exercise.

For every email you don’t send, you save 18 minutes (at the standard rate of three minutes an email). How many messages can you resist sending today and much time can you save?

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Tags: work life balance programs, email overload, information overload, productivity and email, too much email

The Myth of Multitasking

Posted by Joe Robinson

Multitasking multiplies frustration

It's the gospel of productivity in a maxed-out world: Multitasking helps you get more done faster. The only thing is, it doesn't, says David Meyer, a cognitive scientist at the University of Michigan, where he serves as director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory.

"When you perform multiple tasks that each require some of the same channels of processing, conflicts will arise between the tasks, and you're going to have to pick and choose which task you're going to focus on and devote a channel of processing to it," explains Meyer, one of the country's leading experts on multitasking.

Meyer has been at the forefront of research for several decades on how the brain processes information and copes with multitasking. He has investigated the brain's speed, accuracy and memory in information processing while working with psychologist David Kieras for the Office of Naval Research. A study Meyer co-wrote on the limitations of multitasking ("Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching") went viral in 2001, setting off the first awareness of the counterproductivity of simultaneous tasks.

Meyer's work has documented that humans have distinct bandwidth challenges, which makes multitasking problematic. It turns out the brain's ability to process information is limited in a variety of ways—from processing channels to limits on data volume, velocity and working memory—that stymie true, simultaneous activity. Multitasking multiplies only frustration.

MENTAL BROWNOUTS

Counter to conventional wisdom, you can't do two high-cognitive tasks at once, Meyer says. When you're on the phone and writing an e-mail at the same time, you're not doing them at the same time. You're actually switching back and forth between them, since there's only one neural channel through which language flows. In that switching there's a cost: stress, as your brain neurons try to get themselves around the new task or where you were on the primary task each time you switch.

"If you have a complicated task, it requires all your attention, and if you're trying to spread your attention over multiple tasks, it's not going to work," he says.

That's heresy in a time-urgent world with the attention span of a macaque on crack. Meyer admits that multitasking is not only getting more prevalent, but it's also "very often highly inefficient and can be dangerous to your health."

Multitasking kicks thoughts down from the top floors to rote mode, where you don't have full attention on what you're doing, triggering mistakes and surface understanding. You wind up on autopilot in a retatiatory pattern of acting before you think. 

Even the most adept multitasker will "crash and burn" trying to resolve simultaneous conflicting demands, Meyer says. That means you could wind up sending the wrong e-mail; blow an account; have a brownout in which too much access to the cerebral grid shuts down critical thinking; or worse, find yourself in a truly hazardous situation, such as driving while using a cell phone.

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"When you're driving, you have to use the language channel to talk, read signs, plan your next move. If you're trying to have a cell phone conversation while you're doing that, either the phone conversation will suffer or the driving," Meyer says. He points to the growing number of auto accidents caused by people sending texts from behind the wheel.

SIMULTANEOUS INATTENTION

The conflicts triggered by incessant multitasking can set off chronic stress and slow you down, shredding productivity. In fact, trying to complete two or more tasks at once can take 40 percent more time or longer, depending on the complexity of the task, Meyer says.

Performance isn't the only thing that suffers when brains are overwhelmed by multiple tasking. Creativity and innovation don't come from people who are multitasking. "You ought to be setting aside large chunks of time where you just think," Meyer says. "Einstein was not multitasking when he was dreaming up the special and general theories of relativity."

The good news is that there is hope for the attention-span-challenged, in the form of self-regulation through better time management and scheduling. "If you're disciplined enough, you can map out the usage of your time in a way that minimizes your exposure to interruptions," Meyer explains.

To improve attention and productivity, you have to shift the idea of  multitasking from simultaneous to alternating tasks. You do one task for a while, then another task. Unless you prefer the mistakes, meltdowns, and overwhelm of trying to do what your brain can't.  

If you'd like to get multitasking, interruptions, and information overload under control for your team or office, visit our time management or information management pages, or click the button below for details on our Managing Crazy Busy Workload or Email/Information Overload training programs.

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Tags: work life balance, stress management, increasing productivity, email overload, multitasking, information overload, stress and multitasking, interruptions and productivity

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