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In a recent survey by Microsoft, for which 20,000 European workers were provided with a questionnaire in relation to work-communication tools, employees indicated that a steady stream of emails, messages, and notifications impacted their levels of productivity and concentration – with one expert indicating that staff suffered elevated levels of technostress. The report, which sampled views from 21 European nations, including the UK, found that only 11.4% of European workers said they felt highly productive.

This research outlines the challenges to concentration and productivity created by employees having an abundance of communication technology at their fingertips, bombarded and distracted by endless amounts of notifications, updates, and alerts. The research also pointed to the dangers of being connected constantly, drawing on the expectation that employees would respond to messages and requests at all hours of the day.

Social media platforms have taken this condition of distraction to the next level. Speaking at an industry event recently, early Facebook investor and founding president, Sean Parker, said that the massive social network is “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” in order to attract and retain users’ attention. He went on to say, “The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?'”.

To improve your productivity, the following pointers are advice to consider:

  1. Prioritise the important, not the urgent
  2. When missing deadlines is not an option, the Covey Time-Management Matrix can help you to manage your available time more efficiently, allowing you to package your tasks into one of four different quadrants in the Matrix. The key is to ensure that your time is balancing the short-term aspects of your role or business with the long-term. Here we break the Matrix into each quadrant:

    Quadrant 1 – urgent and important activities. These are items that could not have been foreseen, such as emergencies, problems, last-minute preparations, etc.

    Quadrant 2 – not urgent but important. These are tasks without a high urgency, but that can play a significant role in the future, such as strategic planning, health, education, exercise, and career.

    Quadrant 3 – urgent but not important. This is for items that appear to have a high urgency but that are not at all important and that can impair your ability to deliver on your goals. Try to delegate or reschedule them. These types of tasks and requests can impact productivity. Therefore, try to avoid being constantly interrupted – by appointing timeslots in which to address all issues at the same time without your concentration having to suffer. Examples include interruptions, meetings, etc.

    Quadrant 4 – not urgent and not important. This is the space of time-wasters: nothing more than distractions, such as surfing the internet, Facebook, TV, trivia, etc.

  3. Give yourself dedicated time to work
  4. To avoid distractions, provide yourself with the time to work on the most important but not urgent (Quadrant 2) activities. To do this, make sure to allocate two slots of 45 minutes, with a 15-minute break at half-time. This length of time allows your brain to get into the zone of concentration and productivity is accelerated. Make sure to switch off distractions such as pop-up alerts from email and social media feeds.

  5. Manage email communication
  6. There is a tendency for many employees to start work using their inbox as their to-do list. This inevitably becomes a distraction and wastes time, with employees trawling line-by-line through every email. A recommended approach is to use the 4 D’s for email communication, shown below, in order of the best approaches one should adopt:

  1. Delete it. If you can remove the email on an initial scan, all the better.
  2. Delegate it. If you have a team, or contacts, to whom you can delegate, consider this as your next option.
  3. Diarise it. To avoid distractions and impacts to concentration, identify a time in the calendar to address the task at hand.
  4. do it. In the event of none of the above working, you may need to perform the task requested right there and then. This, however, should always be the last consideration.

Lastly, consider some freedom from email. Some firms have recently introduced ‘no email’ days once a week, as well as banning emails being sent to people in the same building and removing the ‘cc’ culture (covering one’s back) – ultimately forcing face-to-face or phone call engagements with team members, which can lead to improved productivity and team morale.

To be highly productive, technology needs to be handled with care and needs to be a supportive solution to your delivering on your business goals – rather than a designed distraction reducing your personal and business impact.