Before you read this today, you read your e-mail. You’re always reading your e-mail. E-mail is Facebook for grownups: America’s current favorite distraction from work — corporate America’s No. 1 de-focuser.
I have teenagers. If you have teenagers, then you too have heard someone explain why it is important to have a Facebook page open while doing homework. The rationale is that some of the other kids have the same class and they are talking about the assignment. But we all know that even if the chemistry homework got mentioned, the kid isn’t using Facebook as some sort of electronically enabled chemistry symposium. Facebook is distracting more kids from doing their homework than it is facilitating it.
The same thing is true about your e-mail and your work. E-mail can facilitate the exchange of information and documents — no doubt about it. But it isn’t without its costs when you continually check and re-check it. E-mail has become our informational slot machine. Each time you pull the lever — that is each time you check the inbox — you might find something rewarding there. But nine times of out 10 it’s just junk or very low priority information, for example, the date next month that they're testing your building’s fire alarm system. Yet even with the rewards to checking e-mail so terribly low, we continue to distract ourselves with it.
The key to success in baseball is to avoid outs. As long as your team makes less than three outs, you remain at bat and in the position to scores runs. If you make no outs forever, you can score runs forever. That would make for a very long game, but still one that you would certainly win.
The key to success in good thinking is to avoid changing subjects. In other words, if you can stay focused on one idea or problem until it is fully developed or solved, you’ll find many more insights and produce much higher quality work than if you switch your attention to and from the main idea or problem. How many times have you found yourself, in mid-conversation, asking aloud, “What was it I was saying?” or confessing, “I just lost my train of thought.” Keeping our minds focused on a single point is so precarious we can lose the point even while we are talking about it.
No meaningful accomplishment I know of was completed in the first pass. Great writing always involves many rewrites. Great marketing ideas evolve through iterations. Important laws are drafted and re-drafted countless times before achieving a final form. All thinking activities require that someone hold a problem or idea in mind and work with it for an extended time.
Scientists are acknowledged to be some of our best thinkers. The world is full of interesting scientific problems and curiosities, however, most scientists cannot think in a serious way about more than one or two areas at a time. That is why a scientist will sometimes shoo away a colleague that proposes an interesting new problem.
Again, the idea is that you cannot allow yourself to divide your attention among multiple areas if you hope to make a meaningful contribution in any one of them. Our minds don’t perform any differently when working on business or organizational issues. With work, family, and personal issues clamoring for our attention, the odds of focusing are already stacked against us. We are awash in the noise of all the people and projects that want our attention. Into that mix come the enticements of advertisers and other pitches designed to catch our attention. Then comes e-mail and its constant promise to relieve us from the hard and productive work of focused thinking.
Increased focus leads to better work productivity and in the longer run, to better career opportunities and better jobs. Focus begins with and depends upon the elimination of distraction.
If you want a raise, turn off your e-mail.
Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of Branders.com, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. Reach him at JerryMcLaughlin@branders.com.