What do these things have in common?
- A cell phone display showing 12 missed calls, 9 unread emails and 3 new voicemails
- A computer screen showing a couple of half-written email messages, 5 open web pages and an open instant-message chat (where it’s your turn to respond)
- A computer with 100 icons showing, dozens of which are partially covering other icons
Answer: They are all examples of what I call digital clutter. And digital clutter is still clutter.
As organization and productivity expert David Allen explains in his great book Getting Things Done, clutter negatively affects your productivity, for several reasons.
First, a cluttered workspace makes it difficult to find the tools you need when you need them. When you have to stop your work over and over to find things – maybe it’s a document with a key stat for your presentation, or maybe it’s just a binder clip – these little distractions can add up to a big loss in the quality of your work.
A second reason clutter harms your productivity, David Allen explains, is that clutter creates a stress because it represents tasks you know you should be dealing with – or should have dealt with already. That stress saps you of your creative and productive energy.
Digital clutter, I argue, has a similar effect. Just imagine looking down at your work phone and seeing five new voicemails, knowing any or all of them could be important calls that will require you to take action right away. Doesn’t your heart rate speed up a little just thinking about it?
Same thing happens when you fire up your computer and see a desktop screen filled with files, open email messages, and other unfinished work.
Even before you begin the task you sat down to accomplish, you’ve already put yourself at a disadvantage by giving your brain a glance at all of the loose ends sitting on your computer.
Multitasking is not the solution – it’s just a different problem
Many people try to deal with the constant inflow of new tasks and projects by “multitasking,” taking on several of them literally at the same time. But for professionals and knowledge workers like you, I would argue that in most cases this tactic will actually create more problems.
Remember that game you played as a kid, where you would try to simultaneously tap the top of your head with one hand and with the other hand rub your stomach in a circular motion?
It takes a surprising amount of mental focus just to accomplish these two simple tasks at the same time – if you can do it at all, that is. So imagine how difficult it would be to listen to a work-related voicemail – and comprehend it – while at the same time staring at your screen drafting an email message.
I believe you should always tackle these types of brainpower-hungry tasks – phone calls, instant messaging, document writing, participating in a meeting, drafting email – one at a time.
I also believe this type of multitasking usually creates just the sort of digital clutter I’m suggesting you need to avoid – the half-finished messages and documents and unopened voicemail notifications that both distract you from your primary task and give you that constant hum of background stress that keeps you from doing your best work.
In other words, if you have an open email message and a half-completed PowerPoint presentation open on your screen – and you’re constantly bouncing back and forth between the two tasks – both projects will suffer for it.
So, what do you do to avoid this? Two ideas:
1) Clear the digital clutter.
Writing a document? Remove everything that could distract you, make you lose focus or otherwise derail you from that document.
That means minimize or close everything else on your computer screen. Make that document fill the entire monitor, so your eyes can’t wander off and spot something else you should be doing.
2) Don’t let digital clutter pile up in the first place
Remember when I mentioned finding five or six voicemails on your phone, and how stressful that can be? I can think of two options to minimize that stress. First, you can simply deal with each inbound digital task as it comes in – respond right away to every email, phone call, text, etc.
That keeps any area of your digital world from overloading. But that might not be convenient for you. How would you reconcile that advice, for example, with my advice above to shut off or put away your phone while you’re writing a document, so an incoming call can’t distract you?
So I think a better idea is to develop a plan for dealing with your digital tasks. Check your voicemails only twice a day – say, at lunch and then just before quitting time. Same with email.
Even if your email stacks up to many unread messages each day, if you know you’re checking it only two times daily, then you won’t see it as digital clutter, because you’ll expect a set of new messages each (planned) time you check email, and you will have set aside time to address each message.
How about you? Have you developed any strategies that help you deal with all of this digital clutter? I suspect the amount of digital tasks and responsibilities – and electronic stress – is increasing for most of us. So please share.