It's all email's fault

It's all email's fault

Summary: Study after study calls email out as a productivity-killer, yet it isn't going anywhere. The only solution is to adopt techniques that keep it from taking your day off-course.

TOPICS: Collaboration

Enter the term email into "Googlism"--a Web app which queries text in Google and displays the different ways the term is used among the results--and the very first response it submits back is that "Email is a bad thing."

The email hate-a-thon doesn't end there: Email is also deemed "dangerous," "slower than," "evil," "not private," "slow," and "bad" by people clearly not prone to mince words.

When did email become such a punching bag? It certainly didn't start this week, when we cringed over the HR executive who accidentally told the entire organization that the company was planning a major restructuring of its U.S. operations, including an undetermined number of layoffs. [Whoops!]

More likely, it began in a more idyllic time when happy workers would file into their cubes or offices, eager to get to the day's tasks and found that they first had 120 emails to respond to, up to 95 percent of which were spam. The remaining five percent were likely silly forwards, newsletters nobody remembered signing up for and lists that refused to unsubscribe them and leaving a mere handful of emails that related to their tasks at hand. Meanwhile, 45 minutes had passed while this frustrated worker whittled their email inboxes down to this effective nub of five, and this, not surprisingly, was why they came to grumble about email's existence.

Workers now have some statistical backing to their malcontent, as a study has found that it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after interruption by email. It estimates that people who check their email every five minutes waste 8 1/2 hours a week trying to figure out what they'd been doing just moments before. The study, put out last year by Dr. Thomas Jackson at Loughborough University, England was highlighted in the Sydney Morning Herald this week, found that workers were especially unable to resist the siren call of a new message, responding to new message alerts in an average of 44 seconds.

These findings were backed up further by a study by by tracking-software maker RescueTime cited in a New York Times article published June 14, which noted that a typical office worker checked e-mail more than 50 times a day, IMed 77 times and visited more than 40 Web sites each day. A research firm, Basex, estimates that more than $650 billion in productivity is lost because of unnecessary interruptions about predominantly mundane matters.

So, to review, email can be a productivity killer, but it's also not going anywhere, so it's best to find ways to not let it throw your day off course. Here's what I (try to) do:

1. Turn off all e-mail notifiers. If you're facing an uninteresting task that must be done--sadly, many of them in a workday--they're impossible to ignore. If we could get back all of the times we've had an almost Pavlovian reaction to a new email notification that was of no urgency, we'd probably all have made our first millions by now.

2. If the email can be responded to, or the task it requests of you can be completed in under two minutes, do it as soon as you open it. There is no reason to let these get buried beneath your real work.

3. Whittle your inbox down to zero at least once a week. If you don't want your inbox to be a sinking hole of lost workday focus, you're going to have to clean the lost causes out of it. Label and archive everything you might need in the future. Accept that not every email requires a response.

Topic: Collaboration

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  • Companies can be pro-active.

    People spend 5 minutes writing an email that can be resolved with a 15 second phone call. It sometimes takes 15 minutes of accumulative time for the reader to ask a follow up. My personal policy at work, I read emails at 8:30 am, 12:30 to 1 (back from lunch) and 4:30. That's it.

    I always smile when I get someone finally calls saying why haven't you answered my question? I'll just tell them I've been at my desk, when did you call?

    There is no reason business can't hold back emails so they come in bunches and cause bigger distractions a few times/day instead of the, literally, 200 distractions I would get in real time per day.

    Imagine the productivity boost using the phone instead of emailing everyone all things if companies held back to morning/night delivery schedules.

    I can hear some people saying, critical real time emails happen (such as pager notifications I get from customer's installed equipment). The don't and shouldn't be filtered, but I still stand by the poster in my office "A failure to plan on your part does not constitute and emergency on my part".

  • RE: It's all email's fault

    Mentioning spam as a significant problem sounds so 2002. Anybody who in this day and age actually sees 95% or even something vaguely approaching that percentage of spam in their inboxes have not kept up with a reasonable level of 'best practices'. To put it bluntly, in a well run network, spam should have less than five percent chance of actually reaching a user's mailbox.

    That said, email as a concentration killer is a problem. I think part of it stems from those little gaps in time that appear when an application or web page you need to access for work loads. More often than not, it takes enough seconds that boredom sets in, and that's when it's very easy to flip to your mail application to see if anything new has turned up. Flipping back to your primary task, the load may still not have finished completely, so there's something else (IRC, some site that's already open in a different browser tab or window), and now with your attention thoroughly shifted away from your primary task, getting back to a productive mode could take a lot of effort.

    For the spam avoidance thing, you might want to be entertained by my blog posts at and you may find one or more of the references there actually useful.