Digital Distractions: The Hidden Productivity and Wellness Costs

In 2010, President Barack Obama had appointed Nish Acharya to be his director of innovation and entrepreneurship. On a Tuesday morning, Acharya received an email from his CTO saying they had to temporarily shut down their office's network due to a computer virus.


The office lost the ability to send or receive emails and the blackout lasted six weeks.


Acharya’s work didn’t grind to a halt during these six weeks. He instead began to notice that he was actually getting better at his job. He would meet with people in person, work for longer blocks of time and got - to dive more deeply into the literature and legislation relevant to the topics.


During these six weeks, he generated breakthrough ideas for his agency.


What if the blackout, in other words, was not a disaster, but instead a preview of how the most innovative executives and entrepreneurs will be organizing their work in the very near future?


Since 1900 the productivity of the manual laborer increased by a factor of fifty, but not so much for knowledge workers. Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, argues about the neglected importance of undisturbed attention on work in today's society.


According to a 2018 report by RescueTime, the average knowledge worker “checks in” on email and IM every 6 minutes. Another paper showed, in 2005, the workers sent and received an average of 50 emails per day. In 2011, the number rose to 92. And in 2019, it became 126.


In his recent book "a World Without Email", Newport argues constant communication, although convenient, greatly affects output, wellbeing and surprisingly, doesn't align with the way our brains process information.




To start off, digital distractions makes us less productive


The first reason is multitasking. In a research paper titled “Constant, Constant, Multi-tasking Craziness", researchers found workers experience a high level of discontinuity in the execution of their activities at work. Excluding meetings, people spend on average slightly over three minutes on an event - rotating between deskwork, phonecalls, email, scheduled and unscheduled meetings.


Multitasking stops you from peak performance because of attention residue - the thoughts about Task A that persist even though you've moved onto task B. In the paper "Why is it so hard to do my work?", professor Sophie Leroy conducted experiments to investigate the impact of multitasking on task performance.

"These results suggest that, even when people are asked to work on only one of their tasks, their mind tends to multitask: that is, they tend to think about several tasks at the same time. Multi-tasking (i.e. doing several things simultaneously) has often been considered in terms of what people ‘‘do” and not necessarily in terms of what people ‘‘think about” or how they allocate their attention among their tasks.

Although it is possible to train to train the mind to focus fully on the present - mindfulness being a useful technique.


Digital communication tools also serve as a distraction to managers as they can't focus on long-term goals. And sometimes it seems the manager is picking a laissez-faire leadership style through sending emails instead of communicating with team members directly.

Our research suggests the pitfalls of e-mail demands may have been underestimated—in addition to its impact on leaders’ own behavior, the reductions in effective leader behaviors likely trickle down to adversely affect unwitting followers who otherwise would benefit from more direct and development from their leaders


"Our research suggests the pitfalls of e-mail demands may have been underestimated—in addition to its impact on leaders’ own behavior, the reductions in effective leader behaviors likely trickle down to adversely affect unwitting followers who otherwise would benefit from more direct and development from their leaders."

In his book, Newport also argues email makes us miserable.


In a 2016 paper co-authored by Gloria Mark, researchers recorded the subjects’ heart rate variability, a common technique for measuring mental stress. HRV signals revealed less stress when email was turned off. Researchers also reported signs of psychological distress on the faces of participants.


Emails are also less effective modes of communication and they just increase admin work. Messages tend to bounce back and forth because they're often ambiguous or commonly misunderstood - unlike a meeting or a phonecall.


As social creatures, human beings want to connect with others. This is why turning down digital communication is so hard. When you ignore an email you're neglecting social interaction and this can put you at unease.


There are processes to better manage attention and time at large corporations, including the use of task boards, and meeting protocols, and specializing practices. And a few companies have jumped at the chance.


Arianna Huffington’s company Thrive Global started exploring how to free its employees from this anxiety while on vacation. They introduced the Thrive Away: if you send an email to a colleague who’s on vacation, you receive a note informing you that your message has been automatically deleted—you can resend it when they return.


German startup founder Lasse Rheingans (Lassa Rein-gans) and the author of 5-hour workweek, actually adopted a five-day workweek at his firm. He said once his staff eliminated both distractions and endless conversations about work, five hours per day would be sufficient for people to get done the main things that mattered for the company.



For every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage. And email is a case in point.


The knowledge economy is undervaluing uninterrupted concentration and overvaluing the convenience and flexibility offered by new technologies - particularly communication overload and digital distractions.


In my opinion, Newport's title "A World Without Email" may not be possible. But we can take time to understand the impact of distractions on performance and wellbeing, and exercise self-discipline to reap its benefits on an individual and organizational level.


Check out our video summarizing Cal Newport's Book "A World Without Email"



References:

  1. Leroy, S. (2009). Why is it so hard to do my work? The challenge of attention residue when switching between work tasks. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 109(2), 168-181.

  2. Mark, G., Iqbal, S. T., Czerwinski, M., Johns, P., Sano, A., & Lutchyn, Y. (2016, May). Email duration, batching and self-interruption: Patterns of email use on productivity and stress. In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 1717-1728).

  3. González, V. M., & Mark, G. (2004, April). " Constant, constant, multi-tasking craziness" managing multiple working spheres. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 113-120).

  4. Rosen, C. C., Simon, L. S., Gajendran, R. S., Johnson, R. E., Lee, H. W., & Lin, S. H. J. (2019). Boxed in by your inbox: Implications of daily e-mail demands for managers’ leadership behaviors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(1), 19.

  5. Perlow, L. A., Hadley, C. N., & Eun, E. (2017). Stop the meeting madness: How to free up time for meaningful work. Harvard Business Review, 95(4), 62-69.

  6. Newport, C. (2021). A world without email: reimagining work in an age of communication overload. Portfolio / Penguin.

  7. NEWPORT, C. A. L. (2018). Deep Work: rules for focused success in a distracted world. GRAND CENTRAL PUB.

  8. Radicati, S., & Levenstein, J. (2015). Email Statistics Report, 2015-2019. Radicati Group, Palo Alto, CA, USA, Tech. Rep.

  9. MacKay, B. J. (2018, October 17). Communication Overload: Most workers can't go 6 minutes without checking email. RescueTime Blog. https://blog.rescuetime.com/communication-multitasking-switches/.

  10. Extract: A World Without Email by Cal Newport. Extract | A World Without Email by Cal Newport - Penguin Books Australia. (n.d.). https://www.penguin.com.au/books/a-world-without-email-9780241341414/extracts/2509-a-world-without-email.