It’s probably safe to say we all spend longer than we’d like on email and instant messengers like Slack. They’re always there in the background, compelling us to click over for a “quick” check in. But these switches add up and fracture blocks of time where we’d otherwise be more focused.
Which made us ask: How much of your day is spent multitasking with communication tools? And just how bad is it for your productivity?
By looking at the anonymized data of close to 50,000 RescueTime users, we discovered a pattern of communication multitasking that was more severe than we had imagined.
40% of your productive time at work is spent multitasking
There’s a ton of research showing that multitasking is bad for us. In fact, studies show it’s pretty much impossible. When we try to “multitask” our brains are actually just switching quickly back and forth between tasks. Instead of making us more efficient, multitasking ends up sapping our productivity, killing our focus, and adding to our stress level.
However, most of us don’t consider the way we use email or instant messenger as multitasking.
We happily keep our inbox or Slack open all day while working on other projects and think nothing of it. But this is multitasking.
And worse, it’s multitasking in a way that leaves us constantly open to interruptions and disruption. (I mean, you wouldn’t want your bus driver reading the newspaper while taking you to work, right?)
When we looked at the time people spending ‘checking in’ on emails or instant messenger, we found that the average knowledge worker spends 40.1% of their productive time a day multitasking with communication tools.
This means, nearly half the time you spend on productive tasks (whether that’s writing or software development or design) is also spent multitasking with email and instant messengers.
Now, why is this an issue? For one, we’ve become addicted to answering emails and notifications as quickly as possible, at the expense of other work.
In one study, Thomas W. Jackson of Loughborough University found 70% of all emails received were opened within 6 seconds of their receipt.
Once you check an email, it takes you an average of 64 seconds to resume your original task. Even worse, another study found that when an email involves doing something outside our inbox, it takes over 9 minutes to return to the original task.
The average knowledge worker only has 1h 12m of productive time a day without being interrupted by email and IM
Looking at total time spent without communication multitasking, our research found the average knowledge worker only has 1 hour and 12 minutes a day for completely focused work.
That’s barely one hour a day (or 6 total hours a week) without the negative effects of multitasking with communication tools.
While email and IM are necessities for doing most modern jobs, this number shows just why it can feel so hard to get meaningful work done every day.
Want to know where your time is actually going? Sign up for RescueTime for free and get an accurate picture of how you spend time on your digital devices.
How communication multitasking is affecting our productivity
We can probably all agree that spending too long on email during the day isn’t great. In fact, when Gloria Mark of UC, Irvine, studied the effects of email on stress and productivity, she found:
“The longer daily duration spent on email, the lower the assessed productivity and the higher the stress.”
However, if just spending too long on communication tasks is making us more stressed and less productive, what about the compounding effects of multitasking and ‘checking in’ constantly?
Constant switching fragments our workday and trains our mind out of focus mode
We might be used to bouncing between email and Google docs, Slack, and other tools. But every time you switch contexts like this to do a single task, you’re fragmenting your workday. And it’s taking a toll on your focus.
In one study, Gloria Mark found that, in general, workers average only 3 minutes on any given task before switching and about 2 minutes using any digital tool before switching.
By not working for long, uninterrupted periods, we’re effectively training our minds out of focus mode and making them more vulnerable to distraction.
We’re exposing ourselves to an unnecessary risk of interruption
When you think of what gets in the way of focused work, you probably assume it’s some external interruption. However, Mark explains that we’re just as likely to interrupt ourselves as to be interrupted by an external source.
When we constantly leave our communication tools open, we’re exposing ourselves to both internal and external interruptions.
Even worse, Mark found that once interrupted, we rarely go right back to the task at hand. Instead, she found that not only do we engage in an average of two or more intervening activities, but it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds before we go back to our original task.
Now, think about what happens when you casually glance at your email.
If you’re lucky, all you’ll see are a few tasks you have to deal with at some point. However, you might also get a message that completely takes up your day and pushes you into a bad mood.
And while it might feel like you need to urgently respond to every email that comes in, do you? (There’s a reason you can’t email 911.)
Constantly multitasking with communication tools tricks us into thinking they’re the most important part of our day.
Juggling tasks makes everything take longer
One of the ways psychologists measure the effects of multitasking is to compare how long it takes us to do a task uninterrupted versus when we try to “juggle” multiple ones at once.
It’s probably no surprise that multitasking slows us down. But the research around task switching shows something even more interesting: The more complex a task, the more time is lost.
In other words, when you multitask with communication tools—which often require time to understand context, a certain level of deep thought, and enough willpower and focus to get through it—you’re essentially hitting the brakes on your productivity.
According to Dr. David Meyer, “even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.”
Communication tools are necessary. But it’s up to you to use them well.
It’s easy to downplay how much of an impact leaving communication tools open can have on your productivity.
But, as author and CEO Dorie Clark writes in Harvard Business Review, it’s the very nature of email and IM, not how time-consuming they are, that makes them so stressful:
“Recognizing the downstream consequences and impact on one’s time is essential when evaluating your decision [to deal with an email].”
Our research shows that the majority of us have a problem with multitasking communication tools. And while there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to when to use communication tools, it is your choice how you use them.
The next time you feel like jumping into email for “just a second,” take a moment to think about the true cost of that action.
Do you think multitasking with email and communication tools is disrupting your workday? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.