A most remarkable article in the June 14th New York Times entitled “Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast” starts with the following quote:
The onslaught of cellphone calls and e-mail and instant messages is fracturing attention spans and hurting productivity. It is a common complaint. But now the very companies that helped create the flood are trying to mop it up.
The problem of email overload is described in detail, and cites a recent study that found that a typical information worker consults their email more than 50 times per day, and instant messaging some 77 times per day.
Also coming out of recent research is the finding that interruptions in an information worker’s day are costing U.S. corporations alone some $650 billion per year. (The initial quote in the Times was corrected to change the word “millions” to “billions.”)
Companies are trying different strategies to limit the interruption. Intel workers are trying to check email less frequently. A Google software engineer introduced a program called “E-Mail Addict, which blocks the user from accessing email for 15 minutes.
So far, so good. These findings seem to corroborate most email users’ personal experience. This is a real problem indeed. New terms are being coined to address the issue like “email bankruptcy” and “email apnea” (what happens when a user unconsciously holds their breath when they see how many new items they have in ther inboxes.)
But is the problem one of email volume, poor email etiquette, badly designed software, or something else?
The answer seems to lie in an experiment that some Intel engineers began to announce “quiet time” to their colleagues. In this way they limited their interruptions from other people, and also turned off access to their email. In a survey following the experiment, three-quarters thought that the practice should be extended to the rest of the company.
I think that the idea that the problem lies in the software, or in etiquette is wrong.
Instead, I believe it resides in the poor time management habits of users.
The reasoning is simple. An incoming email that is not immediately deleted is being kept by the user for a reason– they have made a very quick mental decision to perform an action on that message at some later time.
There is nothing wrong with that, except when it’s accompanied by the habit of leaving the email in the inbox.
That’s a little like putting something in your mouth, liking the taste, and deciding to save some for later in one’s mouth. It’s a gross concept, but an inbox is like a mouth — a place for temporary staging. While food is staged in the mouth, normally a decision is made that is followed by an action.
Storage of food in the oral cavity is generally detrimental to the welfare of the mouth (chewing tobacco and gum are notable exceptions to the rule.)
In the same way, storage of email in the inbox is a habit that leads to overwhelm. A different habit of immediate removal is the initial practice that some are using to effectively deal with even hundreds of incoming email each day.
Also, working in an environment that is open to distractions from incoming email or other people or a cell phone or anything else is also a habit that contributes to overwhelm.
The point here is that email overwhelm is the result of using habits that were just not geared for the digital age. Most working adults developed their productivity habits when paper was the norm, and the volume of incoming information and time demands was limited. They in turn taught their techniques to the next generation, who were never taught new methods in school, or in the workplace.
The resulting overwhelm is only to be expected, as the sheer volume of time demands entering the mind-space of today’s knowledge worker through different channels has simply exploded. Also exacerbating the problem is that fact that there is no proper research being done today in the area of time management. The result is that there is no agreement on the common set of practices that professionals should adopt.
Working professionals don’t need better software, although that would help a little. Without a digitally-driven set of new habits, re-engineered software and classes etiquette will only contribute to the overwhelm.