I have spent the past 20 years leading internet and technology companies, coming up with solutions to make lives easier. And I truly believe we’re overthinking the question of productivity. Not only that, we’re in denial–and that denial is hurting us.
Many people still instinctively believe that instant messaging apps are the key to communicating and getting things done. Their ability to be present on multiple platforms at once gives them the illusion of being in control. But actually, the opposite is true.
"When you adopt always-on behavior, you can never give your full attention to anything"
According to TED psychology professor Amishi Jha, attention is “a flashlight you can direct to whatever you choose”. When you’re talking about collaboration tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams, this flashlight becomes a strobe. It makes your focus bounce chaotically at random intervals.
This creates a state that tech-consultant Linda Stone defines as continuous partial attention. When you adopt always-on behavior, being available to all people at any time, anywhere in the world, you exist in a constant state of alertness. As a result, you can never really give your full attention to anything.
Attention and the Brain
You don’t need me to tell you that context switching is bad news for the brain. A review last year by academics from Oxford, King’s College London, Harvard and Western Sydney University found that this kind of behavior physically impairs cerebral areas related to attention span and memory.
It’s alarming to realize that people who spend time constantly flipping between short activities online are limiting their ability to focus, to the point where scientists can pinpoint the impact. And an endless stream of notifications are encouraging the habit.
The problem is, the more we react to this incoming wave of bleeps and alerts, the less cognitive capacity we have to ignore them. It’s a self-fulfilling reflex.
Worse still, some researchers believe that we’re primed to respond to push notifications as part of a fight-or-flight mentality. “Having evolved in an environment rife with danger and uncertainty, we are hardwired to always default to fast-paced shifts in focus,” explains author Michael Harris, in his book The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection.
See? There’s a reason why we find messaging apps, with their constant pinging updates, so addictive–and it’s not a healthy one.
On the Road to Burnout
Stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are designed to see us through these moments of high alert. Together, they activate a response system that elevates the heart rate, increases blood pressure and boosts energy supplies to the body.
But, if we’re in a constant state of intense focus – switching attention and being “always on” – these stress chemicals have nowhere to go. Over time, they deplete levels of feel-good hormones such as serotonin, leaving us feeling wired and on edge.
You know what happens next? Brain fog: that uncomfortable feeling that your mind is full of cotton wool, and you just can’t focus no matter how hard you try. Brain fog is an early warning sign of burnout, a condition that is now so widespread, the World Health Organization listed it as a disease for the first time last year.
A Damaging Impulse
We’re starting to see a picture emerge here. In a world where our attention levels are already frayed beyond recognition – the average American spends nearly three hours a day on their phone, checking it once every 12 minutes – instant messaging platforms add fuel to the fire.
Sure, they appear seamless and easy to use. Too easy. That’s the point. They even offer “do not disturb” features to “help” you focus. But this is a band aid treating the symptom, not the cause. If you remove the thing that’s dividing your focus, you remove the need to be focused. Trust yourself.
Productivity is driven by focus. And you cannot be focused if you’re scanning three different channels at once. Sure, your instinct is to be constantly aware and alert, and instant messaging feeds that impulse. But following it will, in the long-term, sabotage your focus, and wreak havoc your wellbeing.
The Simplest Solution of All
My team and I designed Spike so that you can get things done, without stress or distraction. With easy conversational email, you can focus all your messages, tasks, chats and calls in one unified place. There’s no need for multiple alerts, and no pressure to be present all the time.
Instead, you take back control with a centralized system that makes it simpler than ever to get work done. This is true both within your team and externally. Messaging apps limit everyone using them to that exact platform. This means you’ll probably need to switch from say, Slack to email, when you move from talking internally to your team to an outside client. Or if you’re a freelancer, you may have multiple platforms on the go for multiple clients.
The same is not true of Spike, which uses the open structure of email to let you pull together all your chats, tasks, emails and project management into one location. You don’t need to log into different apps for different clients, or spend precious minutes tracking down what information lies where. But more importantly, you don’t disrupt your productivity by constantly switching between apps and tasks. You just have one space for uninterrupted workflow.
What’s more, you don’t have that impulse to constantly monitor and respond to messages. Real-time technology lets you know when someone has read your email but it’s up to them when to reply, and vice-versa. Suddenly, there’s more breathing space again.
Focus isn’t a state we need to “hack” with a complex set of tools. It’s been there all along. And there’s no need to choose between “off” (relaxed) or “on” (hyper-alert), either. You can pay attention and be available to people without feeling fraught.
In my view, siloed instant messaging apps *are* the issue. They’re disrupting our concentration and making us chronically stressed. If we can instead get back to basics with a simple and refined email system that streamlines all elements of your workflow, the focus will happen by itself.
Do you agree with me? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Tweet me at @dvirben or find me on LinkedIn. You can also follow Spike on Twitter @SpikeNowHQ, or browse our blog for more insight and ideas on how we’re transforming the future of communication.
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