Productivity and the Internet

There’s a good chance you’re reading this article during your workday as a distraction from whatever it is you’re supposed to be focusing on at work right now. Whatever you were working on, which you still need to finish up, is likely open in another window.

“It’s just a few-minutes break. No big deal?”

But I’m guessing this isn’t the first article you’ve read, and when you’re done skimming this, another one might catch your eye, over there on the right. Or you’ll get an IM from a coworker asking for restaurant recommendations in Atlanta, where they’re traveling to tomorrow on business, and you’ll be tempted to give it some thought, after all, you used to live there and they need your help. Add in a few tweets and a scan of your Facebook newsfeed, and before you know it, you just lost half an hour from your workday.

The Internet is the world’s greatest productivity tool, but also the world’s greatest time killer. Even email, which has put all executives on communication hyper mode since the BlackBerry, wastes a lot of time. As The New York Times pointed out in a recent article on Google CEO Larry Page: He doesn’t like email, even Gmail, saying “the tedious back-and-forth takes too long to solve problems.” One time he forced two executives to settle a dispute, which they had been waging over email, in person and before leaving a room. Email probably wastes time in your everyday life too. Say an email comes in from your boss or a new business prospect that you believe requires a grammatically correct, well thought-out, yet email-brief essay. It could take you 30 minutes to write but you could say it all in 30 seconds or less.

If you’re like most people, your email and IM are continually on, churning away in the background of your day. Whenever something comes in, you stop what you are doing, flip to the new message and then jump back to your work. Don’t kid yourself that you’re “multi-tasking.” Multi-tasking is a myth, says Winifred Gallagher in her book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. You’re actually switching back and forth between two activities. “The extra effort involved actually makes you less rather than more productive; your overall performance will be inefficient, error-prone, and more time-consuming than if you had done one thing at a time,” Gallagher writes. Get enough messages and you’re never really getting anything done all day. And don’t get me started about how productive meetings are when everyone is BBM’ing.

My goal isn’t to tell you you’re a giant slacker, frittering away your workdays. Instead, think about it in reverse. Imagine how much you’d get done and how many fewer hours you would have to work if the Internet weren’t killing your work time. Just think about what you could do with all that extra time: Go to the movies. Hang out with your kids. Or, heaven forbid, work more, and be so much more productive than your distracted peers that you’ll get promoted faster and make more money.

Here are a few things I’ve learned to do that help me get the most out of my day:

  • Turn off IM. Unless you have a compelling reason for real-time IM’ing with someone–for example, you are communicating with a colleague on an airplane and IM is the only choice–turn it off. IM is simply an invitation for people to interrupt your work and ask you trivial questions.
  • Check your email only a few times day. Email is asynchronous–senders don’t expect an immediate response. Take advantage of this by turning off your visual and audio alerts, and checking it just a few times a day.

When I do check email, I have a rule that I respond immediately to every email as soon as I read it, unless it’s an email that needs no response at all. This discipline forces me to send short emails; because I want to get to the next message and never causes me to read an email twice. The result is much less time spent on messaging. The same thing for texting and checking voicemail.
 Have 30-minute meetings. With the exception of formal meetings, anything useful in a meeting can be accomplished in 30 minutes, especially when phones, email, and IM are not allowed.

  • Schedule time for social media. Keeping up with the news is crucial, and maintaining a social media profile is important for professional purposes. But do it wisely. Make it something you schedule time for. I do it as soon as I wake up, and if possible, while I’m eating lunch. Once it’s a scheduled activity like anything else, it doesn’t become a filler that takes up your entire day.

So take it from someone who founded a number of Start-up companies: Spend your days a little less connected and you’ll be more productive, happier, and have much more free time. Now share this article and get back to work!