Do you ever feel like some of the people you work with aren’t exactly the sharpest tools in the shed?  Or worse, does it sometimes seem like you’re not working to your own full potential? The explanation might not be in your (or your coworkers’) IQs, but in the nature of work itself. It turns out that the way we do it is making us dumber.

A study out of the University of California demonstrates how the constant influx of email messages that most people receive all day long causes them high levels of stress and reduces their ability to concentrate.

In an experiment, researchers removed email from a group of office workers and compared their heart rates and behaviours with a group of similar workers who had access to email over five days. The people who had email changed computer windows an average of 37 times per hour – more than double the number of times of those without email. This means that all day long, workers with email are only spending an average of less than two minutes focused on any one thing before jumping over to check something else.

Inspiration can happen quickly, but most quality work takes more than two minutes of attention to accomplish.

The workers with email were also much more stressed, described as being in a “high alert” state. “We found that when you remove email from workers’ lives, they multitask less and experience less stress,” said study co-author Gloria Mark.

In an earlier study, Dr. Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist at King’s College London University, measured the IQs of workers over the course of a workday. His clinical trials showed that in people who tried to respond to every email message as it came in saw their IQs fall by 10 points.  He pointed out that this is more than double the hit your IQ would take from smoking marijuana.

“This is a very real and widespread phenomenon,” said Dr. Wilson. “We have found that this obsession with looking at messages, if unchecked, will damage a worker’s performance by reducing their mental sharpness.”

Email overload makes you dumber than smoking pot does. And that’s not all. Earlier this year we reported on a study out of Virginia that explained why people sometimes seem like dolts in meetings.

“You may joke about how committee meetings make you feel brain dead, but our findings suggest that they may make you act brain dead as well,” said Read Montague, director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory and Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

Putting people together in groups shrinks their capacity for creative thought and slows down their brains’ responsiveness. Meetings lower you IQ.

And yet many people have jobs where they attend meetings and respond to emails all day. So how can you actually work to your full potential in such an IQ killing environment?

Focus. Work on one thing at a time until you have finished it or until it is time to work on something else. Flipping between emails and browsers and documents every two minutes lets you keep track of numerous things at the same time, but it keeps your brain from concentrating fully on any of them.

Only attend those meetings that you have to be in. Request an agenda in advance where applicable. Prepare your input before the meeting so you’re not trying to wing it in a competitive setting. Then take a moment afterwards to walk around, stretch your legs and clear your thoughts before resuming work on your own projects.

Doing one thing at a time really well will pay off a lot more in the end than just doing a perfunctory job on ten things at once. It’s the quality of your work that builds your reputation and career, so do your best.


Peter Harris

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