Making sense of the madness
The first step is to recognize your e-mail and voicemail are out of control, and then take action.
Dwight Moore, an industrial psychologist, in 1999 offered tips in the Harvard Management Update for managing communication overload--eight years later, his pointers are still valid.
1. Start your day with a blank piece of paper instead of e-mail. Write a "strategic goal" on the paper and come up with a plan for reaching the goal.
2. Handle e-mail at the end of the day. Since you're eager to get home then, you'll be more prone to focus on the most important messages and keep your responses succinct.
3. Teach others how to send you e-mail. Find a way to let senders know what information warrants a message to you, and what doesn't.
4. Teach your boss not to micromanage you via e-mail. E-mail can turn everyone into a micromanager, diverting workers and managers from more important big-picture issues, Moore says. Try to redirect your supervisor's attention to big issues you're tackling, and away from minutiae clogging the e-mail universe.
'The Age of Interruption'?
Thomas Friedman in July 2006 wrote an op-ed after visiting the Amazon rain forest, one of the last bastions on earth where the Internet and cell phones are nearly nonexistent:
All we do now is interrupt each other or ourselves with instant messages, e-mail, spam or cellphone rings. Who can think or write or innovate under such conditions? One wonders whether the Age of Interruption will lead to a decline in civilization — as ideas and attention spans shrink and we all get diagnosed with some version of Attention Deficit Disorder. ...
What struck me about our Peruvian rain forest guide, Gilbert, though, was that he carried no devices and did not suffer from continuous partial attention. Just the opposite. He heard every chirp, whistle, howl or crackle in the rain forest and would stop us in our tracks and immediately identify what bird, insect or animal it was. He also had incredible vision and never missed a spider's web, or a butterfly, or a toucan, or a column of marching termites.
He was totally disconnected from the Web, but totally in touch with the incredible web of life around him. I wonder if there's a lesson there.
After reading Moore's message and Friedman's column, I decided to close my e-mail while writing this blog-post. While it feels somewhat unnatural, my focus is better and I'm more in control: My attention is not bouncing in 500 directions at once. As well it shouldn't be. Writers, like so many professionals, need a constant supply of creativity to do our jobs well, so if the price is shutting e-mail for an hour or two, it's one I'm willing to pay.
Continuous partial attention
According to Linda Stone, many people nowadays pay continuous partial attention to what's in front of them. It shouldn't be confused with multitasking--when people multitask, they give the same priority to whatever they're doing, such as filing, copying and talking on the phone. Multitasking is about being as efficient and productive as possible to make more time for other things, she explains.
With CPA, a person gives part of his or her attention to everything, and keeps doing it:
It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter.
We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention. This artificial sense of constant crisis is more typical of continuous partial attention than it is of multi-tasking.
Small amounts of CPA are OK. Using it frequently, though, is detrimental, she says:
... in large doses, it contributes to a stressful lifestyle, to operating in crisis management mode, and to a compromised ability to reflect, to make decisions, and to think creatively. In a 24/7, always-on world, continuous partial attention used as our dominant attention mode contributes to a feeling of overwhelm, over-stimulation and to a sense of being unfulfilled. We are so accessible, we're inaccessible. The latest, greatest powerful technologies have contributed to our feeling increasingly powerless.