It's all email's fault

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.

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.


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