Although digital technology holds the promise of being a force multiplier when it comes to productivity, too much access can actually inhibit what it portends to foster. Jory MacKay explores the true cost of email and IM in daily productivity at RescueTime.

It’s probably safe to say we all spend longer than we’d like on email and instant messengers like Slack. They’re always there in the background, compelling us to click over for a “quick” check in. But these switches add up and fracture blocks of time where we’d otherwise be more focused. Which made us ask: How much of your day is spent multitasking with communication tools? And just how bad is it for your productivity? By looking at the anonymized data of close to 50,000 RescueTime users, we discovered a pattern of communication multitasking that was more severe than we had imagined.

40% of your productive time at work is spent multitasking

There’s a ton of research showing that multitasking is bad for us. In fact, studies show it’s pretty much impossible. When we try to “multitask” our brains are actually just switching quickly back and forth between tasks. Instead of making us more efficient, multitasking ends up sapping our productivity, killing our focus, and adding to our stress level. However, most of us don’t consider the way we use email or instant messenger as multitasking. We happily keep our inbox or Slack open all day while working on other projects and think nothing of it. But this is multitasking. And worse, it’s multitasking in a way that leaves us constantly open to interruptions and disruption. (I mean, you wouldn’t want your bus driver reading the newspaper while taking you to work, right?)

When we looked at the time people spending ‘checking in’ on emails or instant messenger, we found that the average knowledge worker spends 40.1% of their productive time a day multitasking with communication tools. This means, nearly half the time you spend on productive tasks (whether that’s writing or software development or design) is also spent multitasking with email and instant messengers. Now, why is this an issue? For one, we’ve become addicted to answering emails and notifications as quickly as possible, at the expense of other work.

Once you check an email, it takes you an average of 64 seconds to resume your original task. Even worse, another study found that when an email involves doing something outside our inbox, it takes over 9 minutes to return to the original task.

When considering just “taking a sec” to scan your emails, instant messages on your cell or Facebook, stay mindful of the potential cost. Although likely gone are the days of monastic focus on one daily task, you can regain control of your tasking list through message mindfulness. Check those messages, but not first thing in the morning, and take time to put hard problem first on your agenda for at least your first hour of the day.