What happens when you get an e-mail message? Do you drop everything to respond to it? Make this your year of saying NO to the lure of instant response email.

I recently read a book called the Myth of Multitasking, by Dave Crenshaw. It follows a mythical (ha!) coach and his client to show how multitasking hurts instead of helps. The back of the book has a list of the academic research that shows how multitasking isn’t a good thing after all. A few of my favorite titles listed – “Juggling too many tasks can make your stupid,” and “The cost of not paying attention: How interruptions Impact Knowledge Worker Productivity. “

Researchers at Microsoft have discovered how switching tasks can throw off your whole day and make you waste time. I wrote an article about it, 5 years ago! Yes, this little secret has been around for a long time.

Multitasking is an illusion. We can only work on one thing at a time. When we multitask, we just rapidly jump from one thing to another, giving the illusion we’re doing several things at once. At the end of the day, we often wonder what we actually accomplished.

The problem comes in switching tasks. It’s not instantaneous. A Microsoft study found if you’re working on a project and a call or e-mail interrupts you, it can take as long as 15 minutes to fully regain your concentration. A Vanderbilt University study also finds these interruptions cause us to make more mistakes.

The first step in taking control is disabling the automatic pop-ups that tell you that you have new mail. Officially, they are called desktop alerts, but I’ve also heard people call them toast. (Pop-up, get it?)

In Outlook 2007, click the Tools menu and select Options. Then select Preferences and click Advanced E-mail Options. Uncheck the box in front of Display a New Mail Desktop Alert and click OK.

You’ll still get new messages. You just won’t be interrupted every time a message comes in. Try going an hour without checking your inbox. If you find you’re not missing anything important – be honest with yourself – you may be able to go two or three hours without checking your mail.

If you’re worried that you won’t receive an important email from an important person, you can always set up a sound alert when you get a particular email. I did this for my manager – now I hear Captain Janeway saying ‘red alert’ every time I get an email from my manager. Just turn the sound down if you don’t want to annoy a co-worker. (Mine always laugh when they hear ‘red alert.’)

Another thing you could try is the Email Prioritzer program from Office Labs – though you should check to see if it’s okay to download software on your machine first. The program allows you to delay receipt of new email and it prioritizes your email from 1-3. I haven’t tried it yet, but it looks interesting.

Suzanne