Are you feeling overloaded with email, or other distractions at work?

You’re far from alone.

The average office worker sends 40 emails every day, receives 121 emails, checks their email 11 times per hour, and spends 3.1 hours a day in total on email.

If this isn’t worrying enough, it’s worse than you think.

Looking at what the science tells us about the nature of attention, and the cost of distractions, these numbers point to something far more insidious than wasting time alone.

Attention residue: The true cost of distraction

Think you’re good at multitasking?

Research has repeatedly shown that the idea that some people are “good at multitasking” is a myth. Even if we think we’re good multitaskers, studies show that doing two things at once, or parallel processing reliably results in decreases in performance on both tasks.

One of the major reasons for this is because of attention residue. How does it work?Let me explain with an example.

Let’s say we’re writing a report and we pause to check our inbox. We spend 5 minutes reading and responding to emails, and then move back to the report.

Harmless, right?

According to the science, whenever we switch tasks between tasks, the residue of the previous task is, consciously or not, still occupying our minds and preventing us from fully focussing on the next task. This residual processing usually lasts around 25 minutes, even for a brief distraction.

So by spending even 5 minutes checking and responding to emails and then returning to writing a report, a portion of your brain is still processing those emails and preventing you from fully focussing on the task at hand.

Given that the modern office workers often feel like they’re drowning in emails, the true cost of email and similar interruptions accounts for more than just wasted time. It’s also the loss of the kind of deep, undivided attention that’s required to produce valuable work.

When we’re in a work environment that invites constant distraction, our minds become a blur of emails, meetings, conversations and instant messages that have left their residue on our attention. Teams that operate this way are operating at a fraction of their potential!

If you want to reap the benefits of focused and undivided attention, share these three tips with your team so that you can build a workplace culture that minimizes email and other distractions.


1. Schedule time for emails

Instead of constantly checking and replying to emails, allocating blocks of time for emails is a much quicker, more effective way to handle your emails. The length and frequency of these blocks will depend on your work, but people who use this technique are able to spend less time on email, and more time on productive work, with a greater degree of focus.


2. Write more efficient emails

How you actually you write emails matters. Getting this step right can make a big difference in the number of emails you need to respond to in the future.

Open-ended questions or vague answers invite long strings of email that can be avoided by designing your emails for efficiency.

For example, if you’re trying to find a time to discuss a project with a colleague, saying “Let me know what time suits you” could lead to a long chain of replies until both parties find a suitable time.

Instead, sharing your calendar, or writing a list of the times you’re available will save both you and your colleague valuable time.


3. Schedule time for focused work

Putting up a digital “do not disturb” sign can allow you to do more important work without distraction. During this time, you’re focused solely on important tasks that require your undivided attention. If possible, let your team know what you’re doing by blocking the time out on your calendar, going offline on instant measuring apps, or simply telling them that you won’t be reachable.