Yesterday I was teaching a writing class in Sunnyvale, California. In the morning, an executive car picked me up at my hotel to take me to the client company. At the start of the trip, the driver and I talked for a couple of minutes, and he offered to pick me up later in the day and drive me to the airport. I accepted his offer, and we set a time for him to arrive.
Then things changed. While driving me through city traffic, the man took several phone calls. He wrote down addresses and credit card numbers while he drove. He made calls. He made notes. He checked his email—sometimes at stoplights but often while moving.
When we arrived at my destination, I told the driver I had changed my mind about his picking me up later. “I’m just not comfortable with all the things you do while you are driving,” I said. He said okay and drove away.
His multitasking cost him a profitable trip to the airport.
The situation made me think about what the same kind of multitasking costs us as writers. How many times do we let an email that pings or pops up get in the way of an important piece we are working on, taking our eyes off the road so to speak? How often do we stop our productive thinking to click open a message and bang out a quick reply? I believe this happens continually, since so many people respond to my emails within moments. And sometimes I do the same. Yet I don’t believe we are all sitting at our desks waiting for an email to bring us something meaningful to do.
Yes, sometimes responding to email IS the task we choose to focus on, as my driver might have done between fares. But often the drip, drip, drip of emails, texts, and feeds costs us our focus on other important things.
Beyond the cost to our concentration, moving from a project to an email and back to a project and back to an email makes our emails suffer. We all know those oops messages where we overlook the attachment, the person we should have copied, the correct spelling of the recipient’s name, and other details that make our communication professional.
I have fallen into a bad habit lately of letting my inbox rule my day, so my driver’s behavior made me reflect on my own. Tomorrow, when I have some important writing and thinking to do, here’s my plan: I will check my email first thing in the morning and then once each hour or more. I will either
handle the messages that have come in during that hour, or drag them to folders I will handle later. Then I will get back to my writing.
How do you focus on projects when your virtual inbox beeps and flashes? Can you keep your eyes on the writing road?