We are swamped with undesired information on a daily basis. We unwittingly get on e-mail lists that bury us in offers of low interest rate loans and mortgages, Canadian pharmaceuticals and irrelevant consumer products. Somehow, despite the no-call list, we still get numerous calls from “charities” and others. Cold callers reach out for investment managers, insurance companies, alternative electrical service providers and those trying to get us to switch our ISP. And those are just the obvious spammers.
We constantly get spammed at work. Think about how that egalitarian “open door” policy works. It allows anyone to stick their head in and interrupt you at just about any time. If you decided to create some data around the subject, you could keep track of the number of interruptions per day or even per hour, and of each, ask the simple question “Was dealing with that more important than what I was doing when I was interrupted?” You just might discover that your co-workers are spamming you most of the time- and you are signing up for it.
In conjunction with the subject of spam, think about how it can cause you to become distracted or switch tasks. Then think about the number of times you take phone calls while working on something important; the number of times you stop to check e-mail, texts, etc. Much of the data you get is spam cloaked as something else. We are spamming ourselves! And it is constantly distracting
There is a lot of noise out there. Multiple voices are trying to get your attention. Out of all of them, producing a huge amount of static in your life, it is getting tougher and tougher to find the true signal, the information you really need to function effectively.
Everyone is always talking about widening bandwidth, being able to handle more tasks faster. Maybe we should be thinking about handling fewer tasks better and more efficiently. We are already a distracted society. Look around you as you drive. Other drivers are on the phone, texting or e-mailing, finding music, putting on makeup or eating. Research clearly shows that if you do two things at once, both suffer. That means your driving does suffer! That means that e-mailing while on the telephone creates a greater risk that you will say or write something you did not intend or something that can be misinterpreted.
Spam and multitasking are distracting. Clifford Nass, who is a scientist at Stanford University and one of the leaders in research on multitasking, has said that those who feel compelled to do two things at once are “suckers for irrelevancy.” In an interview with Ira Flatow of NPR, Nass said, “The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking….People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted….So they’re pretty much mental wrecks.”
Gloria Mark, professor at The University of California, Irvine, has noted the additional stress caused by switching rapidly between tasks. She says “I argue that when people are switching contexts every ten and one half minutes they can’t possibly be thinking deeply. There’s no way they can achieve flow….This is really bad for innovation.”
As leaders, we have t own our own schedules and our time, not let others own it. That means limiting access at times. That means showing discipline in checking e-mails and taking calls. It means making it okay for our direct reports to do that too. Flooding people with a constant influx of data and expecting them to remain current to the moment while still managing important tasks that require concentration and full attention is a formula for failure. Is doing ten tasks poorly really better than doing three really well?
Smart and effective leaders should figure out how to limit the spam that gets in their way. They should find the signal amid the noise. They should limit distractions from others and from themselves. And they should think more about quality than quantity. This is not easy, and for some, maybe not even possible. But thinking about it and making an effort in these directions should lead to positive results. It takes courage to step back from the precipice.