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Balancing Acts

Creativity can thrive, if you keep the e-mail in check

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Maggie Jackson
July 13, 2008

It's not just the e-mail. The phone calls, instant messages, digital documents, meetings, conference calls, and text messages add up. The result is information overload, and a workforce increasingly buried under data points and communications tidbits.

"Overload is the standard condition in most organizations," says Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School who studies creativity in the workplace. "People are doing what I'm calling 'firefighting,' " resolving the latest crisis or deadline without ever getting ahead of the work flow, she observes.

The data tells a vivid story. Workers get an average 156 e-mails a day, according to the Radicati Group Inc., a research group. And they switch tasks every three minutes on average, reports Gloria Mark of the University of California at Irvine. We're spending more than a quarter of the workday, meanwhile, dealing with interruptions and their needed recovery time, according to the business consulting firm Basex.

And overloaded or highly interrupted workers tend to be stressed - a state of mind that can hurt both productivity and health, recent studies show. Nearly a third of workers are chronically overworked and are more likely to be stressed, depressed, and in poor health, reports the Families and Work Institute.

"There's a strong connection between trying to do lots of different things at the same time, and feeling overwhelmed," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the New York-based institute. "The way we're working is getting worse."

The good news is there's increasing pushback. Companies and individuals are taking steps to combat the data storms so that they can sort the trivia from the crucial and declutter their desks and minds.

At IBM Corp. not long ago, software engineers were frustrated because they rarely had time to focus on their most creative endeavors and inventions. So in 2005, they began informally avoiding meetings, calls, and e-mails one day a week. Now, "ThinkFridays" are observed widely among the company's 386,000 employees worldwide. The idea is loose, unscripted, and useful. It's really about setting aside "quality time" for work, says Maria Ferris, director of global diversity programs. Other companies, such as Intel Corp., also are experimenting with the idea of "quiet times" at work.

Finding focus in the workplace is crucial, says Amabile, who studies the work conditions that inspire innovation across industries. To get creative under deadline, workers need to buy into the urgency of the situation, then step back and find focus. Often, that doesn't happen, she says. Instead, people get scattered and distracted - and can't innovate.

Amabile says managers need to understand that finding focus "is not something frivolous." The right work conditions "can increase creativity and productivity," she says.

Since overload isn't likely to go away, we also need better strategies for managing the daily flow. That's why Michelle Short tries to deal with e-mail immediately once she reads it, by filing it or otherwise acting on it.

"I touch it once, then it goes out and that's the end of it," says Short, director of corporate affairs at the Quincy-based benefit managers Thorbahn and Associates and assistant to the president, John Thorbahn.

Short learned the practice from Bob Kustka, a Norwell-based consultant who helps businesses combat e-mail and other types of overload. Along with handling data quickly to keep in-boxes clean, Kustka advises clients to file information strategically, keeping only what can't be easily replaced. The aim "is not just to eliminate data or organize it," says Kustka. "It's getting people to think about higher-value activities."

Being organized helps you plan ahead. When you're not lost in minutiae, you can see the horizon. To keep ahead, Short lists her five highest weekly priorities on a white board by her desk and empties her BlackBerry in-box at the end of each workday so she sees only new e-mails from home.

John Halamka, the effervescent chief information officer for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, leaves 50 percent of his day's schedule open for responding to 600 daily e-mails and other ad hoc situations. But to keep from being controlled by the "tyranny of the urgent," he also reviews his schedule on Sundays to ensure he's making continual progress on both annual and five-year goals.

"If all you did each day is deal with the moment-to-moment, then you never get to the long-term," says Halamka, who's introducing instant messaging into the hospital later this year to help provide a medium for brief, simple connecting.

Over time, we'll see more shared strategies for dealing with overload. This spring, a group of entrepreneurs, consultants, and senior researchers from Intel, Microsoft Corp., Google Inc., and other companies created the nonprofit Information Overload Research Group to develop strategies to help curb "information pollution." But at the same time, we individually also have to keep tackling the problem.

John M. Hughes, provost of the University of Vermont, sets aside e-mail time mostly early and late in the day, and he tries to keep a fairly empty inbox. But it's a constant struggle: he reported this spring in an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education that in a recent year, he'd received 26,688 e-mails.

"E-mail transmits information rapidly, but can be oppressive," says Hughes. "I spend hours on it every day." With a grim laugh, he ends the interview. "Now, I'll get back to my e-mail," he says.

Maggie Jackson's Balancing Acts column appears every other week. She can be reached at maggie.jackson@att.net.

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