How to find focus and crush the competition in the age of distraction

Author Jocelyn K. Glei zeroes in on how to master digital tools like email instead of being enslaved by them

The ability to tune out the constant barrage of pings and popups emanating from apps and focus on what really matters for our businesses and careers has become a competitive advantage.

That's the message from author Jocelyn K. Glei, whose work centers around finding meaning, creativity and focus in daily work. Her latest book is "Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done."

"I often refer to this moment that we're living in as the age of distraction, so by contrast I think there's a competitive advantage to really being able to be the master of your attention -- to put your attention where you want it," says Glei, who recently moved from Los Angeles back to New York, where she had a number of jobs including a stint as founding editor and director of 99u, the education and research arm of Behance, Adobe's online platform for creative professionals.

While at 99u, Glei edited a series of books centered around productivity, time management and entrepreneurship for creative professionals, including "Manage Your Day-To-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind".

There apparently is a thirst for advice on how to deal with the distractions of modern life and our addiction to tech tools.  You can find rafts of books on time and performance management on Amazon and in the self-help section of brick and mortar bookstores. Glei herself has built an audience of human-resource and productivity management  aficionados and is increasingly in demand as a event speaker and podcast guest.

Why we need help mastering digital tools

It's easy to understand why people need help. On average, office workers go into their inboxes 74 times a day, spending about 30 percent of their time on email, Glei notes. Group-chat tools like HipChat and Slack facilitate real-time group communications as well as one-to-one instant messaging but also can make it even more difficult to focus on work that demands your full attention. 

And it's not only about apps. Glei cites, for example, research revealing that for corporate managers, an average of two days a week (4.2 years of life!) is spent in meetings -- and virtually no one finds all that time well spent.

In order to become the master, rather than the slave, of the digital-oriented modern workplace, you need to understand that the so-called switching costs of multitasking weigh heavily on the human brain. If you interrupt a project you're intensely focused on to go check email, it takes about 25 minutes to get back into your prior "flow state," Glei says.

Research shows that juggling email with other tasks at work lowers your IQ about 10 points, Glei says: "It's like smoking pot at work." 

Chances are good that you are not in the 2 percent of the population that psychologists find can handle multitasking well. In fact, studies show that there is a strong correlation between believing that you are good at it and the likelihood that you are, in fact, bad at it.  In other words, if you think you're great at doing a bunch of things at once, you're in all probability doing them poorly.

The toll all of this takes is widely recognized, "Today, our attentional filters easily become overwhelmed," notes cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin in "The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload."

A select few pay for help. "Successful people -- or people who can afford it -- employ layers of people whose job it is to narrow the attention filter," Levitin writes. "That is, corporate heads, political leaders, spoiled movie stars and others whose time and attention are especially valuable have a staff of people around them who are effectively extensions of their own brains."

The rest of us -- even those in high-level management -- are on our own, and this was a big reason Glei decided to write a book on email.

At Behance's 99u, while curating content, writing, researching and editing, "I had been spending the better part of my days interviewing artists and learners and entrepreneurs about how they made their ideas happen and what emerged for me as a theme was that everyone was really fumbling with managing their attention, managing their time, managing their energy," she says. "A lot of it was a function of the increased autonomy that many people have – they're a one-person business or a small business or they're even working inside a larger business with an increasingly flat hierarchy where more and more you're having to self-manage everything, every aspect of your day, or your business or your career."

Email as microcosm of our struggle with tech

Email is something of a microcosm of our struggle with technology, the single biggest tech tool that distracts people from meaningful work, Glei notes. "Unsubscribe" takes a three-part approach to mastering email. In concise (it's about 200 pages with some illustrations and not-very-small print), humorous, everyday language, it delves into the psychology of why it's so addictive; lays out fundamental strategies to deal with it, and offers practical writing-style tips and "cheat sheet" scripts.

To solve a problem you first have to understand what the problem is, and Glei succinctly dissects why we have become so compulsive about checking email. Essentially, it's a random rewards system, operating on a principle similar to a mechanism that psychologist B.F. Skinner constructed in an experiment with rats.

Skinner's rats would be rewarded with a food pellet when they pressed on a lever. It turns out that the rats were much more motivated, more conditioned and eager to press the lever when the rewards came at random intervals than when they came at regular intervals (for example, a reward for every 10 times a lever is pressed). Rewards are fine, but random rewards are exciting.

Email works like this. Most of it, especially at work, is routine, bothersome, or otherwise disappointing. "But every once in awhile you get something really exciting -- an email from a long-lost friend or, if you're really lucky, video of goats jumping on things," Glei writes in "Unsubscribed".  "And it's those random rewards mixed in with  all the mind-numbing updates and irksome requests that we find so addictive."

Once you understand the basis of tech-tool addiction, Glei suggests that you should do some soul searching on what really matters to you, what you are trying to accomplish, before adopting strategies to deal with it. It's hard to stop spending all your time on email and get down to what you really want or need to do unless you know what exactly are your goals. 

So Glei dispenses advice that may be familiar to those who have dipped into the literature of time management and organizational effectiveness: Make a list of things you want to accomplish. Specifically, she suggests writing down your meaningful work goals for the next three months, keeping the list to three or four things. Keep it  where you can see it from your desk and keep it in mind as you check email and write down your daily to-do lists, which she suggests should be done at the end of each day for the next day at work.

Mastering email

To iron out an effective daily email routine, Glei suggests various strategies for checking and responding to email, chief among them "batching," or checking email in a few 30-minute segments of the day, to avoid the time-killing, soul-numbing switching costs of multitasking.

Another suggestion: Segment the people who email you into groups such as VIPs; key collaborators who you work closely with; fun people like friends who you can count on to add zest to your day, and "potentials" such as possible future clients or collaborators. "Randoms," people you don't know likely asking you to do things that will take up your precious time, rank low.

The idea is that the more important segments should contain as few people as possible and that the segment for contacts of greatest value to you, those who you want to respond to quickly, include the smallest number. The whole framework helps you quickly prioritize which emails are truly urgent or important and avoid wasting time agonizing over each email as you scan your inbox.

And no: Getting to "inbox zero" (no email in your inbox) should not be a goal.

One of Glei's most important tips for responding to email is keeping in mind what researchers call "negativity bias," the idea that readers of email tend to see what is written in a much more negative light than those who wrote them. This tends to happen because of the lack of social cues such a tone of voice and facial expressions.

In other words, if you are mildly positive, what you say might be receiving as neutral, and email that is neutral in tone is likely to be received as negative. If you have something negative to say, for example criticism of a colleague's work, choose your words extra carefully, perhaps starting off with something positive. And sometimes, in complex issues or negotiations, it saves time and potential misunderstanding to simply have a face-to-face chat or make a phone call.

Email is a microcosm of all of or struggles with technology, Glei says. "The  psychology behind addiction that applies to email also applies to social media and other apps and tools," she notes. "Once you have that same level of awareness of how email works you can then apply that to other apps that you use or even other apps that haven’t been invented yet but will certainly be coming online soon."

At work, you need to set expectations for how you will respond to people communicating with you, setting aside time for when you will be off group chat, for example. "You can't treat every Slack message, email or instant message as urgent -- you can't live you life like that," Glei says.

"I think people who are able to really figure out how to marshal their attention have really found a competitive advantage because they can just focus more on what matters and move those goals forward."

Some takeaways: Tips and techniques for mastering digital tools and establishing an effective work routine

Jocelyn K. Glei's work, including Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done and Manage Your Day-To-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind" offer a variety of tips, exercises and techniques. This is a sampling:

--Think about what you want to accomplish, the things that move the needle in your career or business, and write down two or three goals you want to accomplish in the next three months;

--If at all possible start your day, when you are alert, by doing important work that will help you achieve your goals;

-- Check email in batches of 30 minutes each a few times a day; failing that, use the "Pomodoro technique" of doing doing meaningful work in 25-minute spurts (use a timer!);

--Since people increasingly get email on mobile phones, check to see how important email appears on a mobile phone before sending to make sure paragraphs don't look overwhelmingly massive;

--Get out and wander: Set expectations about when you will respond to digital communications and when you are stuck on a problem, physically detach yourself from the workplace to let your subconscious go to work.

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