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  • Writer's pictureJack Mullaney

Staying on Top of Things

Are you trying to stay on top of things?

Or, do you get to the bottom of things?

That's the quandary Stanford professor Donald Knuth proposed in his short essay, Knuth versus email, published over a decade ago. After giving up email in 1990, Knuth reportedly became much happier, having opened up greater blocks of time for "long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration."

Knuth has a point.

In his book, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, NYU professor Adam Alter reports that the average office email goes unread for six seconds. In fact, 70 percent of office emails are read within six seconds of arriving. This is incredibly harmful to our concentration, as Alter cites evidence that it takes up to 25 minutes to be re-immersed in an interrupted task. Staying on top of things comes at a cost: getting to the bottom of things.

Since Knuth and Alter published their work, the whack-a-mole game of staying on top of things has only become more consuming. Many of us could spend our entire day playing defense as the daily deluge of emails, text messages, and social media notifications come flowing in.

"What is important is seldom urgent," President Eisenhower used to say, "and what is urgent is seldom important."

If you spend all of your time staying caught up on every notification, you won't have much time to explore the depths of what the world can offer. In my experience, it's by going deep - in conversation, research, or on a project - that you learn, find fulfillment, and grow.

Instead of leaving my inbox open all day, I schedule a block of time to go through it. Instead of having social media as a vice for every spare moment, I've turned off all notifications and leave my phone in another room when I'm doing focused work. Text messages are still a work in progress, but not allowing the phone to buzz with every new message has helped.

Oftentimes, our jobs ask us to stay on top of things. But with intention, we can remove the omnipresent pressure to respond and give ourselves space.

Within that space, we can get to the bottom of things.

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