Addicted to Work E-Mail

Too much e-mail distracts, costs companies in productivity

By Dana Wilkie Feb 25, 2015
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It’s Monday morning, and the first business task of the day is plowing through one’s e-mail—all 256 messages that somehow accumulated over a single weekend. 

There are vendor pitches, IT updates, interview requests, a boss’s assignment, a colleague’s question, meeting invites, meeting cancellations, the “Thursday is window-washing” notice and the “Friday is fridge-cleaning” warning.

This year, U.S. workers will receive 22 percent more business e-mail than they did three years ago, and send 24 percent more, according to the Radicati Group, a market research firm. Steve Sims, founder of the Redwood City, Calif.-based Badgeville's Behavior Lab, which analyzes workplace behavior management, says business e-mail is on the rise for three reasons: 

  • An “always on, always accessible” work culture.
  • The increasing number of devices on which to read e-mail.
  • The increase in automated e-mails designed to sell products and services.

From a work perspective, e-mail serves an important purpose—it can replace time-consuming meetings and phone calls, for instance. And many people believe that replying quickly to e-mail sends the message that they’re on top of things. 

“People want to demonstrate value to their employer,” Sims said. “When it comes to e-mail, people think, ‘Oh my gosh, if I don’t respond they’ll think I’m not doing my job,’ or ‘Oh my gosh, they’ll think I’m not at my desk.’ ” 

Yet there’s plenty of evidence that e-mail can be a time-hog that costs companies in lost productivity. 

University of the West of Scotland researchers reported in 2006 that 64 percent of respondents to an online survey claimed to check their e-mail once an hour, while 35 percent said they checked it every 15 minutes. In fact, the researchers found, they were actually checking it much more frequently—about every five minutes. 

A survey of U.S. workers released in 2013 by Opinion Matters on behalf of GFI Software found that email dwarfed other forms of office communication. Forty-four percent of respondents used email at work more than any other communications tool, while 28 percent relied mostly on the phone, 22 percent on face-to-face interactions, and 6 percent on instant messaging. More than three-quarters of respondents said they typically replied to emails within one hour during work hours, with nearly one-third saying they replied within 15 minutes.

A 2006 Psychology Today article compared e-mail addiction to drug addiction. Checking e-mail “mimics the path that a drug takes through the brain,” the article quoted John Ratey, a psychiatrist and associate professor at Harvard, as saying. Ratey added that all the symptoms of addiction are present: “There's the dopamine rush with the ‘ding’ of an e-mail alert, and there's the twitchy e-mail withdrawal during the family vacation.”

David Meyer, a University of Michigan psychology professor, found that people who shift their attention between two activities—like writing an e-mail and writing an article, for instance—spend 50 percent more time on these tasks than if they’d finished one task before moving to the next. More recent research from the university found that distractions—even short ones lastign less than three seconds—can double the number of mistakes we make at work. 

Dr. Thomas Jackson of Loughborough University, England, found that it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover one’s train of thought after interruption by e-mail. That means that people who check their e-mail every five minutes waste more than eight hours a week trying to remember what they were doing moments before.

Some people may believe that e-mail doesn’t cause interruptions because a worker chooses when to check for and respond to e-mail. But Jackson also found that people tend to respond to e-mail almost immediately after it arrives, taking an average of one minute and 44 seconds to act on the new message. Seventy percent of e-mail alerts get a reaction within six seconds.

Here are some suggestions for helping employees break the e-mail addiction: 

  • Don’t leave your e-mail open in another tab so you can toggle between that and other pages. This leads to multitasking that can zap productivity. “People who keep their e-mails open get off task because they’re constantly checking e-mail,” Sims said. 
  • Go through your e-mail only at scheduled times—maybe 10 minutes in the morning, 15 minutes at lunch, and 10 minutes again in the late afternoon. “Everybody has different productivity windows,” Sims said. “Mine is very early in the morning and very late at night. So most of the time, I respond to e-mails when I wouldn’t be that effective at other things.” 
  • Set an e-mail curfew. Decide on a cutoff time for sending and reading messages. 
  • Don't over-reply. You don't need to send short, one-word replies, such as “thanks” or “yes.” “There’s a psychological dynamic where people respond to e-mail so others know that they’re participating, whether they have something valid to say or not,” Sims said. 
  • Resist the temptation to hit “reply all.” Does everyone who was originally copied really need to follow the conversation? Similarly, resist the urge to copy too many people. “Copying everybody in the world is a way to create social proof of peer pressure,” Sims said. “Someone didn’t respond to me, so now I’m going to copy his boss and his boss’s boss because I want him to respond.”
  • Turn off the “ding” that alerts you to new messages.
  • Stop treating all e-mails like emergencies. In real emergencies, people can call, text or find other ways to reach you. 
  • If something takes more than three e-mail exchanges, pick up the phone.
  • Use online tools that help you manage your e-mail inbox—such as ActiveInbox or ClearContext. 
  • Consider using social media, such as Twitter, which may work better than e-mail for asking short questions of broad groups of people. Wikis are better than e-mail for collaborating on documents. Blogs are better for publishing information and having informal conversations.
  • Give yourself one vacation day from e-mail each weekend. If that’s too hard, try checking your e-mail for five minutes on Saturday morning, then leaving e-mail alone for the rest of the day. It’ll still be there Sunday morning. 

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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