Suppose you're a fellow geriatric Millennial, a Gen-Xer or a Boomer working in the legal industry. In that case, you will remember the good old days when a pile of mail would be delivered to your desk in the morning after you'd made your morning coffee. At that point, you would know what your day had in store, and you could work through the pile methodically and reply thoughtfully. Responding by letter meant that once you put the envelope in the mail tray, you may have weeks before you would need to think about it again. Sure, emails would arrive, yet nowhere near the suffocating volume we now manage on a daily basis - not to mention the incredible pace we are now operating at, with immediate responses rebounding back to your inbox (and the expectation that you will respond almost instantaneously).
In our fast-paced legal firm, I see how easy it is to get flustered with the constant barrage of emails and the distraction they cause. Add to that our addiction to phones and social media, and there is no wonder we feel overwhelmed with the constant "pings" and interruptions.
Numerous books, podcasts and TED talks feed into our obsession with increasing productivity and managing our time more efficiently, but are we getting anywhere? I'm convinced that "inbox anxiety" is a genuine condition!
According to a survey of 10,500 workers in 7 countries by Asana and GWI in 2021, 37% of participants admitted feeling overwhelmed by email and message notifications, and 56% felt obliged to respond immediately. In a study of US workers by Gloria Mark at the University of California, researchers found that the typical office worker is interrupted or switches tasks, on average, every 3 minutes and 5 seconds. A study by Professor Posner at the University of Oregon also found that once distracted, it takes workers an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to where they left off.
To combat the distractions, Gloria Mark suggested that we are now working faster and producing less to compensate, resulting in more stress and frustration (and probably producing work of a lower standard).
In his book Stolen Focus, Johann Hari says that switching tasks causes you to lose focus, make mistakes and is a creativity drain. And that applies to us too, ladies - we can't successfully multitask either!
"Attention management is the art of focusing on getting things done for the right reasons, in the right places and at the right moments." - Adam Grant
According to the Harvard Business Review, "Attention management is the practice of controlling distractions, being present in the moment, finding flow, and maximising focus, so that you can unleash your genius. It's about being intentional instead of reactive".
In my research and my experience, the following four habits might help:
- Dan Pink suggests working with your circadian rhythm to figure out when to be productive and when to be creative. If you're a morning person like me, schedule analytical tasks when you're at your peak alertness (or peak caffeinationlevels) and save simple administrative duties for the lulls (for me, that's 3 pm).
- Instead of cutting off distractions altogether, schedule times for checking messages, email and catching up with co-workers, and quiet times for finding your flow - maybe this is a day working from home?
- Pick up the phone! It can be easier to send an email to get something off the to-do list, but if it doesn't resolve the issue and it's only just going to bounce back, it's probably worth having a conversation.
- Give up on multitasking.
I wonder whether it's time we shift the focus to attention management, rather than time management, as a top priority for employers, managers, and employees? Might we see less burnout, frustration and stress in our ranks as we adapt to this modern world?
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