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Is Email Overload Killing Your Productivity?

Email OverloadAt the tail end of last year, I spoke at the Internal Social Media Forum in Madrid, Spain, where I met Luis Saurez, Knowledge Manager, Community Builder & Social Computing Evangelist in the IBM Software Group division. Two and a half years ago, he developed plan to show his coworkers just how dependent they really were on e-mail, emphasizing how many times a day they were compelled to check it, and proving that it was no longer a productivity tool, but a procrastinator’s best friend. He’s advocated for social software to replace e-mail as the go-to communication method. And in fact, in less than three years, he’s been able to reduce 90% of his incoming e-mail by communicating through social software.

E-mail is simultaneously the most used business application and (has been labeled) the number one “killer” of productivity. According to a new infographic, businesses lose $650 billon a year due to unnecessary emails, with the average worker costing his or her employer an annual $10,000 because of distractions such as emailing. For those professional interested in the recent discussions around employee productivity, this is a very compelling number.

The infographic (created by  OnlineITDegree.net)  illustrates the story of Atos, a French technology company, who will soon ban internal email. CEO Thierry Breton estimates that only 10 percent of the average 200 emails his employees receive every day are “useful” and Atos has already reduced its internal emails by 20 percent over the last six months.

I have to say that, as much as I’d love to be like Luis or Atos by completely replacing traditional e-mail with social technologies, my current corporate culture simply hasn’t  changed enough to sustain that kind of detachment for a variety of reasons: 1) while I consider ourselves progressive in the implementation of social tools, we still don’t quite have the technical infrastructure to collaborate solely through social media, wikis, and online chat; and 2) our employee demographics simply haven’t adjusted to the level of adoption to social tools that would be required to remove e-mail as our primary communications tool.

Three Issues that Cause Email Overload and How to Fix Them

Problem #1: Lack of e-mail prioritization

The root cause of the e-mail overload problem is us, our powerful psychological tendencies. Fear and uncertainty and/or the need for instant gratification are powerful drivers for constantly checking one‟s e-mail. These taken together with a constant flow of e-mail encourage unproductive behaviors which include interrupting your concentration and your work to check e-mail, wasting time and impairing decision-making.

All too often, employees disrupt their activity to check email and then switchback to the activity, eroding overall productivity. This behavior tends to feed on itself leading to further distraction and delayed decision making on important e-mail. The use of mobile devices in meetings to check non critical e-mail is not only a distraction but dilutes the quality of decision making.

Solutions:

  • Prioritize your inbox. Research indicates that more than 53% of the e-mail you receive is not a high priority to you. However we still tend to read and respond to these “easy” or low priority e-mail first. The risk being that we are then leaving important emails unanswered or delaying required immediate action times.
    • Use sort and search to filter through your email to make finding lost messages much more efficient.. If all else fails, simply ask the sender to “resend” the message so that you don’t waste excessive time crawling through hundreds of messages to find the original one.
    • Delete messages sent by your family of the most recent reunion and / or ask them (and your friends) to use your personal email address.
  • Fast response to important matters is a requirement for most businesses. Advocate for fewer and smaller emails by asking that emails sent to you be treated more like twitter tweets, where the sender is limited by a certain number of characters. Having a maximum number of words creates more focused writing. Email wastes time both in writing and in reading.

Problem #2: Treating your Inbox as an unfocused To‐do list

I admit. I do this ALL the time. When I receive messages that require action from me, I move them into a “Honey-Do” folder and I use that to track items that I need to complete. But in fact, almost 50% of your important e-mail requires some action other than just reading it. So, in effect, you are really just moving half your email from your Inbox to an unfocused To-do list folder.

These To‐do tasks are co‐mingled with new incoming e-mail clogging your mailbox and in turn leads to excess time spent either determining which e-mail are high priorities or constantly searching for actionable e-mail; raising your anxiety levels by searching for time sensitive e-mail. This gives the individual the feeling of lack of control over their deliverables creating stress and anxiety.

Solutions:

  • Separate action items from other e-mail from within your inbox. Once this is done, you will have a focused to‐do list that can be completed much more effectively. Take advantage of MS Outlook’s (or your email client) task feature.
  • Ask yourself if you should send that email. If possible, do not try to answer everybody with emails. Make a call or meet with the person to talk about the problem and solve the problem. If you don’t want colleagues to clutter up your email box, then don’t clutter up theirs.

Problem #3: False sense of productivity

Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it), your job performance is not measured by how many emails to which you’ve responded. Quick e-mail checking or response offers a false sense of achievement and a false sense of control. In spite of working on many e-mail many times during the workday, many people wonder by the end of a day, what they have accomplished, and question the value of their contribution.

Solutions:

  • Establish clear and effective protocols. If you have ambiguous decision-making processes and your colleagues don’t get what they need from each other, they’ll flood the system with email and meeting requests.
  • Establish email guidelines without writing policies. Develop guidelines for yourself and for your team on how to send and respond to email messages but hardcore policies that effect a broad population of workers and dictate how and when they check email are not realistic, nor likely to be effective.
  • Get your current inbox to zero(or as close to it as possible). Once you have done that, adopt the following three steps for each email you receive:
    1. Delete. Glance over your inbox and delete any messages you don’t need to read or keep: calendar invites, advertisements, etc. “You ought to be able to discard 80% of them just by looking at the title,” says Pozen.
    2. Respond. If you can reply to a message in a few minutes or less, go ahead and do that. “If you put it off, you lose time by trying to find it, or remembering what you wanted to say,” says Pozen.
    3. File. For the rest of your messages, decide where they should go. Put them into folders or use flags or labels to indicate how high priority they are and when you need to respond by.

Sources:

http://blogs.hbr.org/hmu/2012/02/stop-email-overload-1.html
http://www.messagemind.com/featured_research/E-mail_Overload_Top_Three_Problems.pdf
http://www.emailtray.com/support/email-management-tips/post-effects-email-overload.html

Elizabeth

Elizabeth is a strategic communications leader with nearly 20 years experience in both internal and external communications. She is a passionate advocate for developing communications that foster a stronger relationship between the organization and its employees. She is a global keynote speaker on employee engagement and HR communications. Elizabeth is a certified professional in Employer Brand through Universum Global's Employer Branding Academy.

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