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Multitasking Does Not Exist
Chunking, Productivity Paranoia, and the Battle for Your Inbox
Raise your hand if you love writing and responding to emails.
Oh, wait, I can’t see you.
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But I am going to assume no one raised their hands, seeing as it is well-established that most leaders HATE managing their inbox.
Starting in January, I began using a website called Togglto analyze my time usage. And after logging almost 2,500 hours, I found that I spent 200 hours sending emails, 8% of my time, or a little over 8 full days and almost 25 work days. When combined with spending almost 150 hours in staff meetings for another 9%, that meant that almost 20% of my time was spent sending emails or sitting in staff meetings.
Yet while it is much easier said than done to get rid of unnecessary meetings, over time I developed an obsession with ensuring that my inbox does not defeat me.
But understanding email’s role in our work is a deeper exploration of how our brain processes information, and what it means to make time for the work that matters.
Big Idea: Chunking
Repeat after me: there is no such thing as “multitasking.”
Before you stop reading and yell at me for how you are a great multitasker, let’s clarify our terms.
From the perspective of brain science, a person can only do one task at a time. As such, when you are sitting in a meeting while writing emails, you are not, technically speaking, multitasking.You are switching between two completely separate tasks, (1) listening to the meeting and (2) writing emails.
Why does this matter?
Because while it might make sense to write emails during a meeting where you do not need to give your full attention (and all of us attend those kinds of meetings),when a person starts to believe that what they are doing is multitasking, they start to believe they can do multiple important tasks at the same time when they can’t. And that is a recipe for a bunch of people giving only part of their attention to each other…
This is where chunking comes in.
The American Psychological Association defines chunking as “the process by which the mind divides large pieces of information into smaller units (chunks) that are easier to retain in short-term memory.” To put it another way, our brains respond better when we group similar tasks and do them back-to-back (i.e. in “chunks”).
In Your Brain At Work, David Rock compares maximizing working memory to “having a tiny studio apartment.” A person cannot increase the space of the apartment,but they can optimize their existing mental space by getting “information on and off the stage more efficiently by simplifying and chunking more effectively” (24).
What does this have to do with email?
For the past fifteen years, I ruthlessly followed two rules about email: (1) end every day with a zero inbox,and (2) write all of my emails at the same time (i.e. “chunk them”). Sometimes, I would chunk my email as much as three times a day, and others time as little as once a day. But I never wanted to be a person who constantly allowed my inbox to own me, as that would effectively mean that I am owned by the idiosyncrasies of every single person sending me an email!
Maybe there is some reward in the World to Come for being a person who responds to every email within minutes, but the research suggests that this person is choosing temporary speed over doing the kind of work that makes a difference, in the long run.
And that kind of work is called…
Book Summary: Deep Work
Given the amount of work that depends on email, it may be surprising to hear someone say that email is not work that “makes a difference.” And, in a sense, email makes a huge difference, just not the kind we think.a computer science professor at Georgetown University, wrote Deep Work to define two categories of work in the digital world:
Shallow Work refers to, “Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted” (6). Many emails we write fall under the category of shallow work, but so are certain kinds of meetings, paperwork, phone calls, etc.
Deep Work refers to “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push[es] your cognitive abilities to their limit” (2). Deep work depends on the field, but sermon or eulogy writing may be deep work for a rabbi, grant writing for a fundraiser, etc.
Newport is not making the case that we should stop doing shallow work; indeed, a person who never does the appropriate paperwork, ignores emails for weeks, etc. is not an effective leader or employee. That said, Newport argues that “Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work” (6).
Jewish organizations are likely no better or worse than any other organization or company regarding deep work vs. shallow work. That said, given that almost no Jewish organization I’ve encountered spends time complaining about how it has too many resources and too many personnel, ruthlessly defining what is shallow work and what is deep work may be the best way to use the resources organizations are given.
Was the Jewish Community Influenced by Russian Trolls?:published a shocking investigation about how fake social media accounts influenced subsequent controversies related to the Women’s March of 2017. In particular, the article points out that much of the controversy centered around whether or not some of the march organizers were anti-semitic was inflamed by fake social media accounts. While this newsletter is not about taking a political position on that question (deep breaths), one wonders how the Jewish community would debate these issues differently if we knew that our discourse was being manipulated in a cyberwar.
Productivity Paranoia: I am a little paranoid about productivity, which is not a great thing. This raises the following question: Who benefits from an obsession with productivity? Hint: It’s not you. This is another reason why people need to be conscious of red flags in job descriptions and leaders need to think about what it means to take well-being at work seriously.
Defend Human Attention: If productivity itself is a problem, we need to ask what interventions can lessen the damage. Here’s a fascinating column on why the digital world needs laws to protect human attention.
Shifting the Narrative: Despite this newsletter’s preference for data, this does not mean that narrative does not matter. Here is a fantastic toolkit on ways to shift the narrative around major issues.
The Unbundling of AI: I have yet to see a great summary of how artificial intelligence (AI) and the metaverse will affect Jewish organizations. But let’s assume they will, so we need to start learning. Here is a helpful article to start thinking about how AI will affect your organization, and an interview with the person who coined the term metaverse on what the future might bring.
As an experiment on top of an experiment, I am going to try and find an appropriate sketchnote that will summarize a key idea from this newsletter, in case you don’t have time to read everything. For this week, here’s one on Deep Work from Sketching Dev.
Props to former colleague Julie Marder for introducing me to Toggl.
In other words, I could have worked 24 hours straight for 8 days to cover all of the time I spent writing emails or 25 days full days at the office with an 8-hour workday. #SAD.
One study found that only 2.5% of people were “supertaskers,” people who could multi-task effectively (and if only 2.5% of the population are effective at multitasking, we’re all better off assuming that we are NOT one of those people).
Oddly enough, this is the kind of the same as saying that there is no such thing as a “double mitzvah.”
Although interestingly, I rarely meet leaders who think that the meetings that they facilitate are the ones that people do not need (myself included). We will come back to this when we explore illusory superiority and the superiority bias, sometimes called the “Lake Wobegan Effect” (where all children are above average).
Cue every renter in New York City nodding glumly, including this author.
“Zero inbox” is exactly what it sounds like. We will cover David Allen and Getting Things Done later, but for now, read this.
Try this visualization: Imagine that every person who sent an email in your inbox was sitting outside of your office in a line, waiting for your response. Now you have a sense of what it means to be owned by your inbox. Now I’m sending YOU hugs!
Photo Credit: www.calnewport.com. As an aside, Newport has particularly strong feelings regarding email. He wrote a book called A World Without Email, so assume he’s not a fan.