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Emails, texts may not be as important as you think

Friday - 12/14/2012, 6:49am  ET

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Americans — by impulse — are quick to divert their attention at the chirp of a new message. (Thinkstock)

Do you think you could unplug for a couple hours each day? How does technology help or hurt your productivity? Post a comment in this story, comment on WTOP's Facebook Page or use #WTOP on Twitter.

Andrew Mollenbeck, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - The steady chimes, rings and tones around the office can create quite a carol.

No, these sounds are not the echoes of a holiday tune. They are the year-round reminder of non-stop emails and messages popping up on the screen.

"We are bombarded with those multiple different ways that people try to reach us," says Paul Spiegelman, chief executive officer of BerylHealth, a technology-focused company working with health care providers and patients.

"The key is to try to very simply pay attention and try to eliminate as many distractions (as possible)," he says.

This goal is a challenge both in the work place and at home, as Americans — by impulse — are quick to divert their attention at the chirp of a new message.

Businesses have tried to calm the inbox overload by phasing out internal email and encouraging employees to use the phone, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Spiegelman says he believes people have become overly dependent on emails.

"I don't think you should send emails that actually require an immediate response," he says.

The fear of missing an important email or alert can disrupt social engagements and even lead to danger. Message recipients often bring the office to the dinner table, or worse, divert their eyes from the road to check a message.

"When you need something that requires an immediate response, then you really should try to look for a different mode of communication," Spiegelman says.

Spiegelman recommends a little test, one that would be revolutionary, if not panic-inducing, in Washington: Turn off messages for a couple of hours and don't respond at all.

"Then go back and be honest by looking at all those emails, and say, ‘Was there anything that suffered as a result of your not looking at those emails for that couple-hour period?'"

Spiegelman's supposition is that most of the missed alerts do not require immediate attention or critical information.

If true, Spiegelman's challenge raises another question. Why the anxious propensity to drop everything at the tone of a new message?

Spiegelman suggests the ubiquitous smart phone and round-the-clock availability have propped up a sense of self importance.

Could the office — perhaps the world — carry on without my timely reply?

"I think we all crave attention, and when someone's trying to reach us, even though it's an email, it feels good," he says.

"You like that light blinking, you like that little yellow envelope."

What's less clear is how that affects the quality of relationships and the productivity of work. After all, the message alerts don't take a moment off.

Follow @MollenbeckWTOP and @WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)