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People ask me all the time, “What’s your best tip for improving productivity?” I give one of two answers, but they are really the same thing.  What I often say is “change your email so the messages don’t automatically download, and only check it a few times per day.” There are two major benefits of doing this: first, it puts you in control of your technology and your communication, by allowing you to review your message when you decide to, instead of being interrupted constantly. The second benefit you get from this is the other most frequent answer I give to the “best tip” question: single tasking. When your email is open and messages are constantly downloading, it encourages you to be multitasking (or, more precisely, cognitive switching) all day, because you are constantly switching your attention to each new message as it arrives. This has three major detrimental effects:

  1. Activities take longer
  2. The quality of your output is lower
  3. It contributes to your feelings of distraction and stress.

Despite the volumes of scientific research that prove this, it’s still one of the hardest behaviors to change and we are our own worst enemy. Once we’ve conditioned ourselves into always doing several things at once, we’ve destroyed our ability to focus because we’ve made it seem boring. If you find yourself addicted to the fast-pace, multitasking, chaotic environment that you have created for yourself, you’ll benefit from thinking about how you can begin to change the behaviors that contribute to this addiction. One person who has taught me so much about changing behavior is Tony Schwartz, and you might start with his latest article on the HBR Blog Network, The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time. He’s got great tips about how to change your behaviors by creating environments where it takes more energy to do the things you don’t want to do, and less energy to engage in healthier, more productive habits.

Also, if you’d like more information about how to control your attention, improve your productivity, and live a life of choice rather than reaction, I hope you’ll check out my book.

Thanks for reading!