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


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “‘Treat your email like laundry’: five ways to work smarter” was written by Chas Newkey-Burden, for theguardian.com on Thursday 13th January 2022 10.55 UTC

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.

A woman works on a laptop in a cozy environment at home. Girl listens to music on headphones, drinks tea and lights candles
Cognitive associations such as specific music or lighting a candle can help let your brain know that you’re in work mode. Photograph: Iuliia Pilipeichenko/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Plan virtual meetings better
Online meetings have become much more common during the pandemic, but they aren’t always helpful. According to research by Asana, despite increased face time with colleagues through virtual meetings, teams have less clarity about what needs to be done and when. On top of that, Yousef says: “Video conferencing is actually physiologically more draining and requires more neurological effort to stay alert and maintain attention.” So make sure you approach your next video call carefully.

First, you can consider if you actually need a meeting at all. If you do, then share an agenda and any materials ahead of the call, so that everyone is prepared. If you have a series of virtual meetings scheduled, make sure you take at least a few minutes’ break between each one, to help your brain reset.

Yousef also suggests turning off self-view during video meetings, or cover the image of your face with a sticky note on your screen. She says that seeing your own face during a video call activates the part of your brain responsible for facial recognition and is an extra drain on your focus.

Change default settings on hardware
There has been an “explosion” in digital tools whose business models are based on getting you to look at their screen, says Yousef. These tools are naturally designed to be “as addictive as possible and to hijack your attention away from the present moment”.

So if you have chat windows open, and notifications switched on for emails, messengers and social media, you’re going to have a tough time concentrating. Close any programs you do not need open and switch off notifications on as many apps as possible. “Until we push back and don’t accept the default settings, these technologies will continue to make it difficult to focus for long periods of time,” says Yousef.

Create triggers to help focus
Having trouble concentrating? Try using cognitive associations to let your brain know it’s time to focus. You might want to clear your desk before you start work, or light a candle or listen to a specific type of music while you’re at your desk. If you work from home, wearing specific clothes for work can also act as a helpful trigger.

“Our brains rely on cognitive associations to help us figure out what is appropriate – and inappropriate – behaviour in a certain situation and to save us time and energy,” says Yousef. “If, for example, we have clear associations between our work environment and getting into a ‘focus mode’, whenever we enter that work environment specific neural networks fire and our brain knows what to do.”

Find out more about how companies, teams and individuals can thrive by taking a look at Asana’s Anatomy of Work Index 2021

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