Why Email Is So Disruptive

Taming the digital chaos

Email is an essential part of our lives today. Indeed, according to Pew Research, 61 percent of all American workers who use the Internet say email is very important for doing their jobs. Even more striking is the fact that email’s popularity endures, and has remained constant over the past decade, despite the emergence and embrace of other communications technologies like social media, texting and video chatting.

Unfortunately, though, email has become a burden — rather than a boon — in our lives. People spend as much as one third of the business day just reading and responding to email. And, according to McKinsey, high-skill knowledge workers spend 28 percent of their work week managing email. The result? Millions of employees are stuck in their inboxes for hours on end, hacking through the clutter in an effort to simply process their message flow.

This is increasingly marginalizing, or getting in the way of, the “real” work at hand. As the “Time Management Ninja” has observed, “Email is not work. It doesn’t get things done. Email doesn’t write a report. Email doesn’t design new products. Email doesn’t train and mentor others. Email doesn’t create new ideas.”

Part of the problem is the continuous tsunamis of indiscriminate and non-essential emails that are drowning our digital lives. Dr. Ian M. Paul, a pediatrician at Penn State College of Medicine, for example, kept track of all his emails for an academic year and found that 2,035 mass distribution emails were received. Assuming that each message took 30 seconds to read, and factoring in the average salary of doctors at the institution, Paul calculated that email overload cost about $1,641 per physician each year. With more than 629 doctors on staff, that totaled more than $1 million in annual lost time.

The downside of email goes well beyond mere financial statistics. People who regularly wrestle with their inboxes just to communicate and stay connected report increased stress and frustration levels. And a study from King’s College in London found that workers who were consumed or distracted by email experienced a decrease in IQ that was more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.

Email has become such a negative factor, in part, because we self-interrupt by checking our inboxes incessantly. A study from Apex Performance found that over 50 percent of all workers checked their inboxes more than 11 times a day and over one third of all workers checked their inboxes every time a new email arrived. This means that we’re looking at our email about once every 20 minutes. Or, put another way, we’re being distracted from a task every 20 minutes. Considering that it takes an average of 15 minutes to get back on track after being pulled away by an email, we’re only spending about 15 minutes an hour concentrating on our work.

There are a number of ways to address and modify this self-induced attention-deficit disorder. Here are just a few of them:

  • Stop Playing Email Ping-Pong — Use the phone or face-to-face communication when it’s possible, rather than going back-and-forth on email.
  • Consider Using Email Alternatives — Instead of email, a number of companies are now deploying Slack and HipChat, for example, to update and collaborate; they’re saving email for communication outside the organization.
  • Don’t Send Documents in Email — Save them on a shared network drive and include a link to the file. This practice means the file can more easily be found by everyone and isn’t locked in your email account.
  • Sharpen Your Subject Lines — Make it clear why an email is a “must-read.”
  • Check Your Inbox Less Frequently — Start small, by cutting the number of times you check email in half. Setting specific times of the day for email can help here.
  • Turn Off Your Email Notifications — Eliminate the noise signifying the arrival of a new message in your inbox.
  • Turn Off Your Mobile Email — You can turn it back on when you need it.
  • Don’t Make Your Inbox a To-Do List — Get these tasks out of email and you won’t be quite so mired in messages.
  • Slash Mass Emails — Ask yourself what information is essential for a broad audience of recipients. And single out those who absolutely need to read an email and take action.

Some companies are trying to help keep employees focused by limiting internal emails. Workers in Intel’s Software and Services group, for example, felt that they weren’t getting enough time to analyze customer needs because they were so bogged down with day-to-day tasks like email. So managers introduced a pilot program that allowed people to block out four hours a week for “think time.” During these “quiet” periods, which were tracked on group calendars and spreadsheets, workers weren’t expected to respond to emails unless the messages were urgent or critical to a collaborative project.

Atos, a global IT services company based outside of Paris, solved the problem more drastically — by phasing out internal email completely. Workers can still use email with outside customers, but executives at Atos say their efforts to cut email clutter is like an environmental cleanup of toxic waste.

Many software companies have developed products to make email work better, and the solutions range from task-management apps to programs that screen and sort messages. But it’s clear that this technology isn’t the answer — either because it doesn’t work, or because people and organizations don’t want to embrace it.

Another issue with email is that we can’t find content later, when we need it. This fear of losing material may be one of the reasons why we’re constantly checking our inboxes; and why we’re always filing, tagging and managing email — just in case we need it again in the future.

Our challenge going forward is to develop and deliver new digital approaches to the email problem that really work, and that people really feel comfortable adopting.

For more tips on addressing the digital chaos in our lives, see the Atlas.co blog.

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