03/28/2008 02:48 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Corporate Freshman: Workday Interrupted

It doesn't add up. The workday has been roughly the same length of time - eight hours - since the early part of this century. Today, though, we have access to a variety of technological advances designed to increase our productivity, from fancy schmancy office software to search engines that supply a library's worth of information faster than we can say Yahoo!. So why are we getting less work done than ever?

The truth is, the same tools that help us get a task done more quickly also prevent us from attending to that task in the first place. E-mail is the biggest culprit. The average employee gets hundreds of e-mails a day. Some are tasteless spam and obnoxious forwards from friends, of course, but I've had colleagues tell me that every morning they come in to an inbox with 100 e-mails they're supposed to read. In fact, most people I've talked to spend a minimum of a few hours a day reading and responding to e-mail.

Why is e-mail such a drain on productivity? Well for one thing, most people don't know how to use it properly. Time-wasting e-mail offenses range from the book-length message with too many irrelevant details to the string that will never die as long as the "reply" function exists. Also, e-mail is like your six-year-old brother - always right over your shoulder bugging you. Today's e-mail programs don't even make you check for new messages. Messages saunter in on the local area network and announce their arrival with a pop-up window or a cute little bell sound. So no matter what you're working on, count on e-mail to interrupt it at least once a minute.

People who love to procrastinate and/or gossip but feel guilty about using e-mail to send one line messages about the strange noises coming from the cube section next door have a friend called Instant Messenger (IM). IM is the king of all workplace interrupters, allowing you to correspond instantly with anyone on the planet provided he or she has the program as well. Sign up for IM and you'll instantly triple the time you waste on the job engaged in mindless chit chat. Suddenly, you will be privileged to hear every thought that comes into every colleague's mind at any given time. Is your caffeine-addicted co-worker craving Starbucks? Did the histrionic girl in the office over just have a fight with her boyfriend? You'll know about it. Trust me.

Just in case there aren't enough interruptions popping up on your computer screen, there's always your cell phone. The era of voicemail had sadly passed us by, and in business today you are expected to be reachable by cell day or night. Cell phones know no boundaries. Whether you're in your boss's weekly status meeting or at lunch with a client, whoever's calling is more important and must be attended to.

Unfortunately, there's no cure for the interruptitis that plagues most businesses. E-mail is a necessary evil, and some companies require that you sign up for IM too. To get the most out of your work day, plan your schedule in advance and build in time for e-mail and unanticipated meetings. If being on IM is mandatory, put the "Busy" or "Away" setting on as often as possible. Most importantly, practice focusing on the task at hand and don't let those pesky interruptions derail you for too long. If you're successful, you'll have discovered the meaning of 21st century efficiency!