‘Treat your email like laundry’: five ways to work smarter

date_range 06-Feb-2022
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Does it take you all morning to finish one simple task? Do you feel a sense of dread every time your chat messenger pings? Here are some simple steps to help you find your focus

You start the day with the best intentions, determined to be productive and efficient. Yet, before you’ve even had your mid-morning coffee, you’re derailed by a chaotic procession of interruptions, distractions and poor project management. Before you know it, you are stressed, tired and brain fog has descended.

But don’t worry – help is at hand. Dr Sahar Yousef, a leading expert on productivity and cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, has partnered with the work management company Asana to offer expert tips on how to improve your concentration and efficiency at work.

Treat emails as laundry

Many workers feel pressure to respond to emails and other messages immediately, but this constant monitoring comes at a cost. It can take as long as 25 minutes to regain momentum after an interruption, so Yousef says we should treat email, texts, and other chat tools like we would laundry. “Let messages build up and then do a ‘load’ every one or two hours, as opposed to having everything always accessible and trying to process in real-time,” she says.

Schedule focus time

Yousef says a major enemy of concentration while working is “context switching”. This happens when you suddenly shift your attention to a different context, such as when you interrupt what you’re working on to join an unexpected call, or to respond to a message about an unrelated project. “Every time we switch tasks, we pay a fine in terms of both time and energy,” says Yousef. “And by energy, I mean our brains literally need blood glucose and oxygen to perform the switch”.

So, instead of switching between different tasks throughout the day, schedule dedicated time to focus on one specific project. Two good ways of doing this are timeboxing and time-blocking.

With timeboxing, you estimate the amount of time a task will take and dedicate a certain amount of time to complete it. During that time you should ignore all other tasks. Time-blocking is similar – but instead of boxing out time for a single task, you group similar tasks together and complete them all in one “time block”. For example, you might schedule a time block to answer your emails or to catch up on those nagging admin tasks.