The Island of Doubt

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Thomas Benton is worried about today’s kids and declining levels of respect for academic excellence. In his review of a series of recent books about related subjects, he quotes author Naomi Baron favorably, lamenting the rise of multi-tasking:

Worst of all, the prevalence of multi-tasking — of always being partly distracted, doing several things at once — has diminished the quality of our thought, reflection, self-expression, and even, surprisingly, our productivity. Baron’s solution is to turn off the distractions and focus on the task and people at hand.

Benton’s conclusion is less critical of technology, but it got me to thinking about how often I get interrupted while at work. I had my email program set to check for mail every 10 minutes, and alert me with the least annoying but still attention-getting sound I could find in my operating system’s sound file library.

Is that too often? How about you? Take this poll by selecting the time that best fits with your habits. If you don’t have a local email program set to automatically check and alert you, how often you do manually check your mail on a typical day?

Of course, dialing down the distraction frequency won’t be much about the assault on thought in general. Benton summarizes Susan Jacoby’s list of culprits, as found in her new book, The Age of American Unreason thusly:

junk science, fundamentalism, celebrity-obsessed media, identity politics, urban-gang culture, political correctness, declining academic standards, moral relativism, political pandering, and the weakening of investigative journalism, among other factors.

But I’m going to do my bit and change the email checking frequency to 30 minutes.


  1. #1 vileseagulls
    September 8, 2008

    Your poll link appears to be broken. My work uses Outlook Exchange, which is instant rather than periodic. When mail arrives it pops up the subject and first line, which I glance at to see if I care and check immediately if I do.

  2. #2 S2
    September 8, 2008

    Always first thing in the morning, and again after lunch. Occasionally at other times, depending on how engrossed I am in what I’m doing (or when I just need to take a bit of a break), so in total maybe 4 to 5 times per day on average.

    This seems to be about normal in the organisation I work for, so perhaps it’s a cultural thing. If we need faster responses we’ll use the ‘phone or go and visit the person instead. Emails are often important but rarely time critical.

    It suits me.

    BTW, the link to the poll above appears to be broken.

  3. #3 SimonG
    September 8, 2008

    I’m with vileseagulls, more or less. I tend to have the alerts even less intrusive: no noise, and just an icon. I’ll glance at it from time to time when I’m not engaged in some task, or need a break from it.

    I also make use of instant messaging (MS Communicator) at work, which covers a lot of the intra/inter-office stuff. If I set my status appropriately I won’t get bothered for trivial stuff.

    At home, using Evolution, it’s the same sort of thing. It checks for email quite frequently but just bungs a silent icon on the toolbar.

  4. #4 EricJuve
    September 8, 2008

    I use both Outlook (business) and Gmail(personal). The Outlook pops up the reminder and I have the choice to ignore it as I often do unless it is an e-mail I have been waiting for. My Gmail I check whenever I get a free moment to do so.

  5. #5 Baz
    September 8, 2008

    I check both my work mail and gmail first thing in the morning and then just whenever is convenient – I think one of e-mail’s advantages is that it needn’t interrupt you. I don’t get alerts when new mails arrive, and when I have to use a desktop where this happens (e.g. on a customer site) I find it really annoying.

    If someone wants me urgently they can call me. Naturally I avoid instant messaging…

  6. #6 llewelly
    September 8, 2008

    While in college I had my email configured to notify me immediately.
    Post-college, I found myself working on much larger scale programs, which required me to maintain far more state in my head. This transformed desirable interruptions into disasters.
    I configured my email to never notify me, and my phone to never ring. I would plan my work day so that I had 3-4 stopping points, where I could put down what I was doing, check email and phone messages, and then go back to work without losing a lot of time an energy. Given the difficulty of planning programming work, it was hard to predict exactly when these 3-4 stopping points would arrive – but this system worked quite well for me.

  7. #7 Badger3k
    September 9, 2008

    I check my work email maybe 4-5 times per day, but since I work off-shift to most of my school (1-9 as opposed to 8-4), email is primarily how we can communicate, especially if I need to contact the district HQ. I used to check my personal email constantly when I was heavy into forums and got email notifications, but until I got my iPhone, I checked my private email once every week or so. There are some accounts I may check once every month (or 3 weeks, perhaps). I don’t keep my phone on for email, and I check it 2-3 times per day.

  8. #8 Badger3k
    September 9, 2008

    Cropcakes – I forgot to include the reason I responded originally. Does the link do anything. I got to a poll, but when I select something and hit the button…nothing happens. Should there be some change that shows my selection was registered?

  9. #9 yttrai
    September 9, 2008

    “This seems to be about normal in the organisation I work for, so perhaps it’s a cultural thing. If we need faster responses we’ll use the ‘phone or go and visit the person instead. Emails are often important but rarely time critical.”

    And as a person who works primarily in a lab, but also has a desk, i didn’t even ask to have my phone moved the last time i changed floors. I have a computer in lab, and so all my correspondence is via email. Checking my phone messages when i take breaks is intrusive on the time i would prefer to spend absorbing some data, or just drinking water and resting my brain.

  10. #10 speedwell
    September 9, 2008

    I support over two thousand users as the front line support tech for an engineering database, so the best approximation for how frequently I check my e-mail is “constantly except for bathroom breaks.”

  11. #11 paulm
    September 9, 2008

    Not email – the question should be:

    How often do you check your climate change sites/blogs?

  12. #12 Dunc
    September 18, 2008

    Well, I’m sitting here on a dual monitor set-up with Outlook permanently on one monitor…

    Private email I check about once a week, unless I’m expecting something.

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