Start Page: Fighting interruption addiction, continued

May 22, 2013

Kim BrandIn my last column, I confessed I was addicted to interruptions: email, voice mail, texts, phone calls, Twitter feeds, etc. Studies have shown multitasking lowers IQ.

This article continues where I left off. If you want the whole thing, send a note to info@ComputerExpertsIndy.com or check the March 27, 2013, issue of Indiana Lawyer. Search “Brand” at TheIndianaLawyer.com, and you’ll find it there, too.

Attention management strategies

Along the path to recovering my lost ability to focus and reserving more time to think, I’ve employed these strategies that have really helped:

• Make appointments with yourself. Respect those appointments the way you would if you were spending the time with a client.

• Dedicate blocks of time to a task and refuse interruptions during those blocks. The “Pomodoro Technique” is a popular system that has you set aside 25-minute blocks to focus on a particular task. But you can start with any size block and graduate to 25 minutes if that seems too hard. Aficionados actually use cute tomato timers to track their time. (Visit www.PomodoroTechnique.com for more.)

• Use guilt to reform your multitasking behavior. Think of multitasking the way you do of other unhealthy habits like eating fattening foods – it is! When you catch yourself multitasking, shame yourself into single tasking. Auditing your multitasking behavior and simply noticing the number of interruptions you are subjected to is a good first step on the path to a more productive lifestyle. Set attention goals and work toward them.

Use Outlook rules to ration attention

We all receive too much email. A 2011 report by The Radicati Group indicates the average email user exchanges over 100 messages a day. The main problem with email is that all incoming messages generally arrive in one place: your inbox. So the first step to reclaiming a big portion of the attention you pay to your inbox is to automate the redirection of some of those messages to folders you can check less frequently. Basically, that involves classifying messages and moving them by using Outlook rules.

Many people use folders to organize messages. I recommend adding at least five folders named for the source or target of the message. I call these folders “Attention Zones.”

Folder name/ Rule

Copied to me: All mail in which my email address appears in the cc: field

Internal :All mail sent to me from within my company

Lists: All mail sent from list servers

Read later: Interesting; but read later

Unsubscribe: Not interesting – get them to stop ASAP!

Mail which is copied to me does not usually require urgent attention. It was, after all, copied to me. I review the contents of this folder a couple times a day. I may want to do something based on the message, but it is not as high a priority as mail directed to me.

Internal email includes messages that were sent from my colleagues – in other words, from email addresses inside my company. These messages can safely be reviewed less frequently based on the assumption that if someone in my company needed to reach me urgently they could stop by my office or call me.

Lists are obviously less important. They only need to be reviewed on a “time available” basis. In my world that is synonymous with never. You can automate the redirection of Listserv email in a variety of ways, but the simplest is to use an alias when you subscribe. That way a simple rule can be used to direct all email sent to that address to the “Lists” folder.

“Read later” actual means try to read later. These are messages that may be very interesting or refer to subject matters you are researching and will want to have later. Some messages are moved into this folder manually – but using Outlook’s Quick Step feature makes it, well, quicker.

“Unsubscribe” is for email you never wanted. The trick here is to process them in batches rather than individually. Better yet, delegate this folder to a staff member who can do it for you. It’s easy to do with Outlook and an Exchange server.

Using this system, I have been able to save about an hour a week. Nobody has complained that I didn’t respond promptly, and I get to spend more of my attention on high-priority messages.

Rich or poor, we all have the same 24 hours in a day to pay attention to what is most important to us. Learning to demand a higher return on the attention we pay for is a 21st century necessity.•


Kim Brand is a technology expert and president of Computer Experts, Inc. in Indianapolis. He is the inventor of FileSafe, the only on-premises file server priced like a cloud service. He speaks and writes frequently on technology subjects – making them interesting and understandable. The opinions expressed are those of the author.


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