There’s a lizard inside your brain.
This is the part of your brain that tries to keep you alive, and it does this by being aware of what is happening around you.
Your brain has a strong “novelty” bias. If something new turns up, you stop and figure out what this new thing means for you – is it dangerous or not?
And, because it’s such an important (or used to be important in the days when sabre-tooth tigers were around) brain function to have, it can cut through everything else you are doing to get your attention.
In other words, you can be easily distracted by something new in your environment.
And the tools we use for work and life now are designed to distract us, and as individuals and organisations, we should think hard about whether that is something we should allow.
Daniel Levitin describes how multi-tasking is bad for you in his book The organized mind.
Take email, for example. You can’t predict when the next email will come into your inbox.
When it does, you get anything from a little icon in the bottom right corner of your screen to a big ding sound if your speakers are on.
It is simply impossible for your brain not to notice that something has changed in the environment in front of you.
Your brain responds chemically, burning up brain fuel (oxygenated glucose), increasing the stress hormone cortisol and gets your body ready to fight or flee.
When this happens hundreds of times a day, it make you much less productive. Just knowing that you have an unread email in your inbox drops your IQ by 10 points.
It turns out that multi-tasking is worse for you than smoking pot.
One reason why email (and facebook and every other social communication tool) is exploding is that the marginal costs of sending a message are so low.
It costs someone nothing to send a new message.
As a result, everyone sends more of them – something they wouldn’t do if they had a limit on the number they could send, or paid a price when they sent each one.
So what we do if we want to be more productive?
There are two things to try out.
First try and limit your exposure to novelty. If you need to work on something and concentrate, turn off email and your phone for a while.
It’s hard, but you’ll get more done more quickly without interruptions and your brain will be happier at the end of that time.
Second, work in time-blocks. This simply means having set times when you work and a set time when you check email and communicate.
This is what Paul Graham of YCombinator calls Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule.
In most organisations, a recurring complaint from workers is the volume of email that comes in every day.
If you are in a position of influence to make your organisation more productive, perhaps the best way is to make it OK for people to check email once or twice a day rather than having it on all the time.