Photo: Chris Metcalf
Technology was originally created with the intention of saving us time. The cotton gin was created to save time processing cotton, the steam engine to save time over using horses for power, and computers to save time on calculations. But where is all this free time? It seems that people are busier and more stressed than ever before.
Despite the incredible pace of technological innovations in the last several decades, it has been ineffective in actually saving us time. An incredible number of tools are available today that have never been available before, but we don’t know how to effectively use them to reduce stress and provide more leisure time. It is not a limitation of the technology, rather our training on these technologies lags far behind – we just don’t take the time to learn how to use them effectively!
The technologies that dominate our everyday lives
In the grand scheme of things cell phones and email are new technologies. The majority of people got their first cell phone less than 10 years ago and email maybe a couple years before that. Now we are combining the technologies – chances are if you bought a new cell phone in the last year or two it now has email on it. The downside to these rapid technological advances is that we haven’t had time to properly learn the best way to use them.
Have you ever been talking to someone in person when their cell phone rings? How is this person supposed to respond? It is wonderful that you can be reached at any time of day by your friend 10,000 miles away, but at what cost? The call disrupts your face-to-face conversation for a digital one. Text messages are less obtrusive but the same principle applies – they dictate our lives and take us out of the moment.
And what about email? All day we are pelted with unimportant emails to sift though and interrupt whatever we were doing – it is taking you out of the real world and sucking you into the matrix. We habitually check our email every 10 minutes just in case something important comes that you will have to respond to.
What’s wrong with how we do it now?
There has been a great deal of research into how well humans multitask, and the results are not what you will want to hear. It turns out the human mind is not exactly designed for it – and yet we do it anyway! The British Institute of Psychiatry showed that interruptions by email during a creative task dropped the person’s IQ by 10 points. For comparison sake, this is is equivalent to not sleeping for 36 hours and twice the effect of smoking marijuana.
“Well that is fine, I don’t do creative tasks at work!” Do you do serious mental tasks? (I hope you do otherwise you are not challenging yourself and should find a new job, but that is for a different post). A study of Microsoft employees found that workers took on average 15 minutes to return to their serious mental task after being interrupted by email or instant messages. Once distracted they would answer other emails or browse the internet rather than returning straight to their work. These distractions add up to wasting 2 hours of productivity a day. I am no different and neither are you!
Training for cell phones and email
We need to be trained to ignore ringing cell phones and stop checking emails incessantly. This is harder than it seems – it is exciting to get a phone call and we all want to receive a terrific email. One of the main methods of time management theory is to batch your tasks so that you can spend a contiguous block of time focusing on one thing. This is the type of training we need for our newest technologies! We need to be trained to develop the discipline to ignore these interruptions and realize that they are not urgent.
The beautiful thing is – we can actually adopt technology to help us better manage the forms of communication we are using. How about a feature to only receive phone calls, text messages, instant messages, and emails from certain people during your predetermined productivity blocks of time? Everyone else can wait until the end of your 2 hour productivity block before you respond. Does anyone really need an immediate response other than your boss, wife, and top client?
What about all this real-time push notification technology?
It’s terrific! But you should only use it when you are not working on something else. Believe it or not, you can wait up to 2 hours before knowing what Ashton Kutcher ate for lunch. After your productivity block is done you can then take advantage of the real-time information services – but here is the key – fitting them into your schedule rather than letting twitter and similar services run your life.
Will this training actually help?
Hopefully. Of course new technologies are constantly being developed so we will have to adapt our training, however the focus remains the same: limit distractions during our productive hours.
Even though we are able to do all of our work quicker and more efficiently than ever before, we just find other things to fill the time rather than kicking back and relaxing. Here is an excerpt from The Overworked American diving into the disturbing trend of how we spend our time.