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Management Are e-mails distracting you at work? Blame it on utility fallacy

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If you feel overwhelmed by e-mail, blame it on the utility fallacy.

That’s the term Georgetown University professor Cal Newport uses for our tendency to be seduced by the utilitarian benefits provided by technology while overlooking the negative personal and social impact.

From a strictly technical viewpoint, e-mail is self-evidently better than the memos, voice mails and fax machines that it superseded, Prof. Newport says. "But the modern knowledge worker now sends 125 business e-mails a day, which works out to one every 3.85 minutes – vastly more back-and-forth communication than what was common in the pre-e-mail era. One could certainly argue that this new behaviour is not ‘better’ in any useful sense,” he writes on his Study Hacks blog.

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No, we’re not dimwits, wasting our time. He suggests the introduction of low-friction communication turned our office communications topsy-turvy. And the same thing is happening with another assault on our time: Social media. It’s wonderful to connect with each other and share information with minimum effort. But the end result includes negative consequences.

Data from RescueTime, a time management software company, offer a nuanced perspective. It asked users about interruptions at work, with 52 per cent saying they are interrupted frequently and a relatively equal amount, 46 per cent, opting for only a few times a day. When asked to name the three most common distractions, 64 per cent listed face-to-face distractions compared with only 50 per cent pointing to e-mail.

E-mail, of course, is being supplemented in offices by messaging, through systems such as Slack, Team and Workplace. They are supposed to make collaboration easier but technology writer Rani Molla, on Vox, suggests if used poorly the opposite happens: “This type of software is meant to get different parts of a company working together, to break down hierarchies, to spark chance interactions and innovations. In practice it can be hell. The addition of yet another communications tool can result in a surfeit of information.”

So it’s the utility fallacy in action again. Employees at large companies are each sending more than 200 Slack messages per week, according to Time Is Ltd., a productivity-analytics company. “Keeping up with these conversations can seem like a full-time job. After a while, the software goes from helping you work to making it impossible to get work done,” Ms. Molla notes.

While e-mail usage has declined, she notes that any time saving has gone to messaging. The total amount of time we spend communicating is roughly the same as it was six years ago. And the pressure is so unrelenting that communications consultant Nick Morgan notes more than half of all managers expect their workers to respond to business messages while on vacation.

That research – by Randstad U.S., a recruiting and talent company, and Future Workplace, an HR consultancy – found more than half of the managers and employees responding used virtual communication tools to handle workplace conflicts, rather than talking face to face. Almost 80 per cent said that communicating virtually has caused them to be more reactive than strategic in their daily work.

Complaining about this trend can seem like complaining about the weather: Not much we can do about it. But we can understand it, and as well as trying to carve out more distraction-free time for what Prof. Newport calls deep work, we can also try to understand that we are succumbing to a utility fallacy with technology, and need to be wary rather than wholeheartedly welcoming.

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