David Allen’s Getting Things Done philosophy has changed the lives of many professionals, including myself. One of its central points is the concept of an Inbox.
Your inbox, a seemingly mundane holder of things, is in fact your shield against distractions, interruptions and context switching. Though the types of inboxes range from regular mailboxes to RSS feeds, the most important one for many of us is the email inbox.Allen’s point is that the control of Inbox is the path to stress-free productivity and sustainable focus. I believe that the fundamental reason for this is the cost of context switching, or multi-tasking.
Now, your co-worker can always capture your attention in 2 ways: either talking with you in real-time e.g. by phone, or by sending you a message – e.g. an email, an SMS, a voicemail or a screenmail.
The crucial difference is that a message goes to your inbox, whereas the direct contact, if successful, essentially captures your full attention right at that moment. Whenever someone captures your full attention to something that you were not thinking of before that, it requires your brain to switch the context. You sort-of keep the previous issue in memory and switch your attention to the new distraction.
1. The cost is high and
2. We badly want to believe that the cost is low because we are “good at multi-tasking”. (In fact, this seems related to dopamine production in the brain.)
Now, what does this have to do with the Inbox? You should by now appreciate the fact that if the distracting issue lands in your inbox, it does not interfere with your workflow. It does not require you to multitask. You can deal with the message when you are ready for it.
What the psychology research shows is that this will enable you to focus more on each task and be more efficient at them. You can’t avoid becoming more productive.
ScreenMail is almost as close to a face-to-face meeting by a computer as you can get. You can see the other person’s screen and hear her voice. True, there is no interaction. But this is precisely the point! Most of the time, *interaction is not necessary*. And even when it is, we can still *reduce* the time needed for the interaction, by first communicating the main points by exchanging a few ScreenMails back and forth.
In short, ScreenMail makes it possible to push even more things into your inbox, and keep them out of the way until you are finished with the things you are doing right now. It makes your Inbox stronger.
But what if the distraction is something important? Well, even if the task at hand is less important than the distracting one, it is usually more sensible to complete it before moving to the next task, rather than to always switching to the loudest task which may appear to be more important.
But, if you really get serious about it, ask yourself: How often are those things all that urgent, anyway?