You Have Too Much Mail

The Wall Street Journal:

Take a look at your computer screen and the surface of your desk: A lot is going on.

Right now, I count 10 running programs with 13 windows on my iMac, plus seven notes or documents on my computer desk and innumerable paper piles, folders and books on my “main” desk, which serves primarily as overflow space.

My 13 computer windows include four for my Internet browser, itself showing tabs for 15 separate Web pages. The tasks in progress, in addition to writing this review (what was that deadline again?), include monitoring three email accounts, keeping up with my Facebook friends, figuring out how to wire money into one of my bank accounts, digging into several scientific articles about genes, checking the weather in the city I will be visiting next week and reading various blogs, some of which are actually work-related.

And this is at home. At the office, my efforts to juggle these tasks would be further burdened by meetings to attend, conference calls to join, classes to teach and co-workers to see. And there is still the telephone call or two — on one of my three phone lines (home, office, mobile).

A century ago, time and motion studies were conducted to understand precisely how various tasks of physical labor were carried out and how they could be done more efficiently.

The results were revealing: What a bricklayer did in 18 steps, it turned out, could be done in just five. Torkel Klingberg begins “The Overflowing Brain” with a sort of “time and attention” study: an eye-opening vignette of a day in the mental life of a typical corporate manager.

Mere minutes or seconds after beginning one task, she is interrupted by another; she spends the first 90 minutes of her day reading and sending email and devotes as much time thereafter to updating and re-ordering items on her to-do lists than to actually getting things done.

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Photo by kveselyte.

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