Alexandra Samuel has 32,944 unread Gmail messages, not to mention the 98,000 unread emails in her archive alone. She also makes a living helping people better manage their digital lives.
Samuel has written a newly released book on the topic, Work Smarter with Social Media, and she lives by the mantra that Inbox Zero is not only impossible, it’s a waste of your time. “I don’t think that having everything read and checked off and filed is an indicator you have it all done,” she says. “We are still working off a manual that was written for a pre-digital world.”
Samuel’s own manual is quite different. She sees less than 5% of her incoming mail. Any message with the word “unsubscribe” in it automatically bypasses her inbox for a “newsletters” folder that includes subfolders on specific topics. Every receipt gets filed automatically in a “receipts” folder. Social media notifications are tucked away where they can’t distract her, and the list of her email automations goes on.
Yet Samuel herself will tell you that overcoming digital distraction (a topic she and psychologist Larry Rosen recently tackled together in Harvard Business Review) requires far more than slapping a few filters on your inbox and hoping for the best.
Ever-expanding data streams have become the bane of our productive existence. According to the nonprofit Information Overload Research Group, a quarter of our workday is lost to information overload online.
All of this digital distraction is wreaking havoc on our attention spans. A recent study by Microsoft claims the human attention span is now shorter than that of a goldfish, which for the record is a pitiful nine seconds. While the science behind this oft-sited data is unclear, what’s certain is that our ability to focus and remain focused for sustained periods of time is constantly under assault in the midst of so much digital distraction.
But the good news is that there’s plenty we can do to take control back. Samuel spoke with Fast Company about how to handle the onslaught of information without losing focus on what matters most to you and your career.
Many of us operate on the etiquette standards of a pre-digital world à la Emily Post. It’s rude not to respond to people’s message, the etiquette goes. But these days, responding to everyone is just impossible. “When you try to apply the rules of the old world to the circumstances of the new world, it’s a recipe for madness,” says Samuel. “As long as you remain committed to the idea of keeping up, you are totally letting other people drive your attention and agenda.”
Instead of keeping up, make your goal keeping focused. That’s a challenge, of course, when so many messages, tweets, posts, buzzes, and pings are nudging at your attention. The way Samuel maintains this focus is by being extremely clear about her priorities, both short and long term.
Be clear about what actually matters to you. What are your long-term priorities? What projects need to get done? What do you want out of your day? Week? Month? Year? Know this stuff before you turn on your computer and start working for the day, and remind yourself of it. “The most important work you do online happens before you open your computer,” says Samuel. “You have to be incredibly clear in your own head, or on paper, or in your Evernote about what your top priorities are … That should be guiding where you put your attention.”
Once you jump on your computer, if you don’t have those priorities straight, it won’t take much for you to get derailed into the La La Land of digital distraction. “There’s such an extraordinary volume of information that unless you are clear on where you want to put your attention, you’re going to lose focus by 9:30 a.m.,” says Samuel.
Setting email filters will help eliminate distractions from making their way into your inbox, but you want to make sure you’re setting up shortcuts and prioritizing what’s most relevant, not just for your day-to-day, but more importantly, towards your long-term goals. “If we just let our email run wild, many of us have so many messages we can miss the stuff that actually needs our attention,” says Samuel.
For example, if you know that bringing in three new clients this year is an important priority for your business, you want to make sure that those prospective client messages are at the top of your inbox when you open it. All the other stuff should be relegated to folders for you to look at once you’ve handled your priorities first. On the other hand, if growing a more productive cohesive team is your most important priority, internal emails should be the ones at the top of your inbox each day. “That top priority should dictate where you put your time and attention on a day-to-day basis,” says Samuel.
That also means consuming the right kind of information and setting up alerts and RSS feeds for what matters most to you. Many people still get their news by going directly to their favorite blog or news site, or clicking on links that appear in their social media feed. But that inevitably leads to unwanted distraction.
Samuel recommends using a newsreader app like feedly, Flipboard, or Reeder, all of which aggregate articles and create a newsfeed that lets you read stories and get information across the Internet all in one place.
There are many on-ramps to digital distraction, but Samuel calls the smartphone “the digital gateway drug.” You know what she’s talking about. Pick up your phone to read an incoming text and you suddenly find yourself reflexively checking your email or wandering onto Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
Samuel takes the advice a good friend once gave her in these moments. If she has less than five minutes of free time on her hands, she consciously resists the urge to fill it with phone time. “Getting out of the practice of filling every teeny gap in your life with a phone is important,” she says. “The whole challenge is learning how to be more present despite digital distraction. How do we use the Internet in a way that makes our lives more meaningful?”