Like many companies, CNET offers its employees time management courses. I haven't taken one yet. Why not? Too busy. But seriously, folks… Look, I know what these courses are about. They're about task lists, goal hierarchies, keeping an orderly work space, and focus. Here's what the course is most definitely not going to say: "If you want to maximize your use of time, be sure to check your e-mail every 30 seconds."
Yet most of us let our computers do just that. In fact, if you're using an enterprise e-mail system such as Exchange (the server program for Outlook), your computer checks your e-mail continuously, and chances are that the very nanosecond a new message comes in, you get a notification pop-up in the lower-right corner of your screen. Each notice pops up on your screen like a slice of toast from a toaster and distracts you, killing your productivity a little bit at a time.
Is there a better way? You bet there is. Here are the worst PC distractions and how to banish some of them.
Do you really need to see every single piece of e-mail previewed on your screen? No? Then here's a simple thing to do: Turn off the preview function. (Microsoft Outlook 2003 buries the option: Go to Tools, Options; select E-mail Options; select Advanced E-mail Options; then clear the check box "Display a new desktop alert.")
I had a hard time bringing myself to do this. I think the constant notification of incoming e-mail made me feel important. But I'm bigger than that now, and it's easier to work without the interruption.
Some of the people I work with say that they actually rely on the toast pop-ups, since their jobs revolve around handling a lot of small tasks very quickly. The notifications to do these tasks come via e-mail, and the pop-ups let them monitor their work flow without constantly looking at their e-mail application. They are interruptible. Are you?
In the future, Microsoft and other companies should enable smarter interruptions. For example, task-based e-mail will get a pop-up, but messages that appear to not be time-related won't. I saw some early stabs at smart notification when I visited Microsoft's Center for Information Work last year.
I have not solved the interruption problem of IM. My half-way solution--which is not a good one--is that I don't start my IM application with Windows. I have to consciously turn it on.
That done, I'm wide open for interruption. Some interruptions are good. If my buddy Tom down the hall wants to go out for lunch, an IM is a good way to set it up. If our product manager, Karen, has a quick question about a feature story we're posting to CNET.com, IM is a useful way to communicate. But if friends or family members from outside work just want to chat, well, as much as I'd love to talk to them, I tend to get rather focused during work and don't always have the time or the spare mental cycles for a warm, personal conversation. So I have to type, "I'll ping you later," and then suffer IM guilt for the rest of the day.
The problem with IM is that there is no easy way to set up plausible deniability for ignoring an incoming communication. By contrast, if your phone rings and you don't want to talk, you just don't pick up, and nobody's the wiser. If your IM is showing "available" and you don't reply to a message, you're a jerk. On some IM programs, you can set individual availability states per buddy, but it's a pain in the neck to manage. What I want is a global availability setting that shows me as neither "away," nor "available," but rather, "possibly available." Then if I don't answer a message, I can claim I was away from the office.
This is why I just don't run my IM program most of the time.
Pointless software update alerts
It's great that most application software is now smart enough to update itself. But all of the programs use different methods to tell me they have updates available, and some days it's distracting. The worst offender is Adobe Acrobat, which alerts me to updates not just to Acrobat but also to photo management software that I don't use, right when I want to just quietly and quickly open a PDF file.
I'd like it if there were some central, trustworthy messaging system that could handle all these updates. E-mail is no good for that--even the update messages that aren't Trojan horses often get lumped into antispam mailboxes alongside the junk mail. What I'd like is for every application that wants to alert me about an update either to funnel its updates into a central location--maybe an RSS feed--or, failing that, at least to alert me at a regular time, say, 4 p.m. on Fridays. That'd be a good time for me to do system maintenance.
Microsoft Windows' update notification scheme isn't bad, actually; Windows tends to update on Tuesdays; the notification pop-up is subtle and can be ignored until you power down or restart your PC. More programs should be like that.
Important security updates
Nearly all security products get important updates over the Internet, and they get a lot, since there are so many emerging threats to computing. Fortunately, it's quite possible to tell most security products to just update themselves in the background and leave you out of it. I'd go mad if I had to watch my virus scanner process with each update it got; it's much better to let the program handle its own maintenance.
Your Web browser alone isn't likely to throw itself in front of your applications and take your attention away, but it is a constant sink on productivity. Having a window into entertainment, shopping, and just pure distraction sitting on your desktop does nobody any favors at the office. But do yourself one: next time you need a brain break and you're tempted to surf to The Onion or StupidVideos to amuse yourself for a moment, instead just sit back in your chair, take a deep breath, and try to be mentally quiet for a change. Yeah, OK, I'm from California. But trust me, constant interruptions of lightweight entertainment do not help your work.
Do what I say, not what I do
Now, if you manage to turn off the pointless software and communication notifications coming into your system, you may find yourself better able to focus on your work. In which case, there is one interruption you should encourage.
Take a break from your PC once in a while. If you work without letup, you're more likely to come down with a nasty repetitive strain ailment. So check out a program that reminds you take stretch breaks.
I admit, it's very difficult to change your behavior. I'm still constantly responding to pop-ups and succumbing to the siren call of random Web surfing. But every day I try to pay less attention to my computer's interruptions, and when a program gets annoying, I change its settings so it bothers me less. I really don't feel I'm missing anything, and it has lowered my work stress level. PCs are wonderfully complex tools, but simplifying the way we interact with them has a very nice payoff.
Are you the interruptible type, or have you mastered your PC? Share your secrets of work.