Look in front of you. The array of digital tools at our disposal has radically changed the way we work and live our daily lives. These tools have presented a lot of benefits but those benefits come packaged with some real challenges as well.

A recent HBR article outlines the cost of relying too much on these digital tools, email specifically, to the point where they aren’t helping us anymore and they actually serve as a detriment to our productivity and the quality of the work we produce.

To frame the question of digital distraction and email addiction, I’ll ask the same question HBR writer Ron Friedman asked. What if every time you ran low on something in the house, milk, toothpaste, coffee filters, whatever, you had to run to the store just to get that item?

You would never get anything done. Email (and other digital tools like Facebook) operate in a similar way. There’s a small built in reward to checking each one as there’s new content to take in all the time. But, we now know that multitasking is really not something we do very well, if we’re concerned about the quality and timeliness of the end product.

A better tactic is to establish a list of priorities and and focus exclusively on one until you see it to completion, then move onto the next one, and repeat the process. This allows you to give all of your energy and focus to completing one task to the best of your ability.

But what about that inbox? Might be something good in there. Trust me, I know the temptation is real. So how can we fight it?

Ultimately, dealing without the majority of these tools is just not feasible for most of us today. We’re expected to be available and in touch with what’s going on in our business and in the world generally. But there are a couple tactics you can try to reduce your urge to check email over and over.

Try to switch your mindset from instant to delayed gratification. There’s something addictive in the instantaneous nature of text messaging, tweeting, and email. But some of that pleasure can be compounded by waiting long enough to finish your task then making a task itself out of checking those places. By forcing yourself to wait you also get the gratification of successfully completing the task that you set out to work on.

Another tactic you can try is to physically separate yourself from the source of distraction. Maybe you have a small box on your desk that you can put your phone in for half an hour or an hour at a time. Set a timer, and when it goes off, you can take it out. This all depends on your work environment so pick something that makes sense for you.

So think about your personal relationship with email. How often do you check it? How many of those times is there something waiting that requires an urgent response? A message where your immediate viewing of it resulted in a net benefit for you or your company? Take steps to lessen your itch to constantly check email and see what it does to your productivity and quality of work.

photo credit: Blick vom Karren via photopin (license)