Taming email communications – part 1

For years, email has been scourge of business communications and many of us blame email for our woes. We love blaming “technology” because but it’s harder for us to look in the mirror and be honest with ourselves. If we do, then we’ll realize that the problem isn’t email; it’s how we use it.

The days of blaming email are over. To say that you are buried in email is really saying that you are unorganized. To tell someone that you “missed it” or “didn’t get your email” is to say you were not paying attention. Spam folders and lost attachments are the receivers’ responsibility to manage and maintain – not a viable excuse.

Email is such a huge part of communication; it is time to pay attention to it, to study up on it and to actually get trained on best practices.

Left unmanaged, email presents three main problems:

  1. The time we spend doing email
  2. The negative productivity cost of continuously checking email
  3. Email lets other people prioritize your day for you

The time we spend doing email

If you feel like you’re playing whack-a-mole with your inbox, you’re not alone. The Radicati Group estimates that the average knowledge worker receives around 100 emails every day, a number that is rising at around 15% per year.

In July 2012, the McKinsey Global Institute released a report titled “The Social Economy: Unlocking Value and Productivity Through Social Technologies,” which found that typical employees now spend fully 28% of their work time managing email. And it is only getting worse! Think about it. If you work 50 hours per week, then 14 of them are spent reading and writing emails.

The negative productivity cost of continuously checking email

What is less obvious to us, however, is the cognitive price we pay each time we drop everything and check our email. Shifting our attention from one task to another, as we do when we’re monitoring email while trying to read a report or craft a presentation, disrupts our concentration and saps our focus. Each time we return to our initial task, we use up valuable cognitive resources reorienting ourselves. And all those transitional costs add up.

Research shows that when we are deeply engrossed in an activity, even minor distractions can have a profound effect. According to a University of California-Irvine study, regaining our initial momentum following an interruption can take, on average, upwards of 20 minutes.

Studies show that being cut off from email significantly reduces stress and allows employees to focus far better, according to the study by UC Irvine and U.S. Army researchers. Heart rate monitors were attached to computer users in a suburban office setting, while software sensors detected how often they switched windows. People who read email changed screens twice as often and were in a steady “high alert” state, with more constant heart rates. Those removed from email for five days experienced more natural, variable heart rates.

“We found that when you remove email from workers’ lives, they multitask less and experience less stress,” said UCI informatics professor Gloria Mark.

Multitasking, as many studies have shown, is a myth. A more accurate account of what happens when we tell ourselves we’re multitasking is that we’re rapidly switching between activities, degrading our clarity and depleting our mental energy. And the consequences can be surprisingly serious.

An experiment shows that email makes you dumber than pot was conducted at the University of London found that we lose as many as 10 IQ points when we allow our work to be interrupted by seemingly benign distractions like emails and text messages.

Remember: it’s up to you to protect your cognitive resources. The more you do to minimize task-switching over the course of the day, the more mental bandwidth you’ll have for activities that actually matter.

Email lets other people prioritize your day for you

Speaking of activities that actually matter, email is the ultimate tool for letting other people prioritize your day for you. Reacting to emails as they come in effectively surrenders your ability to focus on your priorities. Instead, you spend your time dealing with all the incoming “stuff.” David Allen calls this “reacting to the latest and loudest” and it is a surefire way to let other people set your priorities.

The net effect of this is you feel like you’re getting a lot of work done but the problem is that you are not getting the important stuff done. Cumulatively, this saps away your ability to complete the things that really make a difference to your boss and your company.

Finally, we all feel constantly busy in our work lives today. Email is a huge part of this. The speed of business is certainly increasing and technologies like email are certainly part of this. Competition is moving faster and therefore, there is increasing pressure to do more in less time. With all this pressure to do more in less time, it is even more critical that you do the important stuff first and not allow other people to prioritize your activities for you.

So, those are the three main problems with modern email. In my next post I’ll tell you why everyone wants to kill email and what to do about it.

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About Michael Keithley
Digital Transformation CIO and Public Speaker. Previously, CIO at Creative Artists Agency

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