How to Get More Done by Doing Less

Manage your in-box, distractions, interruptions. How often do CPAs check e-mail? Join the survey. Get the answers.

August 6, 2007
by Rick Telberg/At Large

Several times every day, CPAs across the nation ask themselves the same questions: “Should I finish what I’m doing? Or should I take a quick peek at my e-mail in-box?”

According to the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, e-mail may be the worst thing for productivity since … Hmm, just a minute. I’m trying to remember …

Oh yeah! The researchers found that checking your e-mail can be more damaging to office productivity than getting stoned. The experiment actually had subjects take an IQ test while not distracted; while distracted by e-mails, phone calls and other digital temptations; or while under the influence of the evil weed. While the undistracted came away with the highest IQ scores, the online digitized multi-taskers performed less intelligently than their ad hoc stoner cohorts.

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Author and business philosopher, Tim Ferriss, has extrapolated that experiment to suggest that while multitasking may help people look busy, it doesn’t help them actually get much done.

I don’t know whether dipping into your e-mail in-box 10 or 20 thousand times a day qualifies as addiction, but I must admit there’s something pleasantly desperate about it. Maybe it’s the hope of receiving good news.

Maybe it’s the fear of missing something important.

Maybe it’s a desire to be doing something — anything — other than what you should be doing.

Whatever the reason, dealing with e-mail is a distraction. And distractions cut into your time more than you may realize. Though it takes but a moment to check your e-mail and only a few moments to respond to someone’s urgent-urgent-urgent demand for attention, it takes many more moments — as much as 45 minutes worth of moments — to refocus on whatever it was you were doing (or, more likely, not doing) in the first place.

Ferriss offers some good suggestions for minimizing your e-mail busy-ness and maximizing your productivity. Marijuana, I should hasten to add, is not among his suggestions. Rather, he suggests not taking even the tiniest peek at your e-mail until … can you stand it? Noon.

Yes, noon. At that point, between the project you were working on and the lunch break you’re about to take, you should batch process your e-mail. Take care of all of it — wham, bam, slam, dunk — and then go to lunch.

And then don’t check your e-mail again until 4 p.m., at which point you batch process the afternoon bunch and then, yes, go home. Ferriss also suggests that you set your e-mail application to automatically reply with a message informing senders that you will not respond to e-mail until noon or 4 p.m., whichever comes first. You might also mention that you will respond only to e-mail that requires a decision.

In fact, you can ward off incoming e-mail by sending out e-mail in an “if/then” format. For example: “If the client wants to meet with me, then make an appointment for Thursday afternoon. If she doesn’t want to meet, then ask her to call me on Thursday afternoon or send an e-mail explaining the problem. If you can answer her questions then do so.”

See how the “if/then” format effectively makes decisions in advance? That precludes the need for one or more e-mails, one or more delays, one or more distractions, one or more disruptions to your productivity.

Bottom line: Don’t let the speed of e-mail delay your day. If you want to get something done, then just do it … and nothing else.

NOW IT'S YOUR TURN: Join the survey: Get the results.

COMMENTS: Rants, raves, idle thoughts or questions? Contact Rick Telberg.

Copyright © 2007 Bay Street Group LLC: All Rights Reserved: Used by Permission.

About Rick Telberg

Rick Telberg is editor at large/director of online content.

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Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA or CPA2Biz. Official AICPA positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.