Email has been called the "killer app", but is it killing productivity?
Most of us have heard of the ‘Law of Attraction’ where what you think about, you bring about." >
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Interruptions and email

01 May 2008

Email has been called the “killer app”, but is it killing productivity?Most of us have heard of the ‘Law of Attraction’ where what you think about, you bring about. There is also an equal and opposite force — the ‘Law of Dis-traction’ — that works to thwart our efforts. You may not have realised it, but distractions and interruptions cost you double in time to regain focus. When someone asks you a question in the middle of your thought process, just watch how long it takes  to get your thinking back to where you left off. Email, some would argue, is one of the greatest things that the computer revolution has done for personal productivity. It’s been referred to as the “killer app” of the internet age and, used properly, can be an amazingly effective communication tool. The Radicati Group, a consulting and research firm based in Palo Alto, California, recently published a report suggesting email traffic is expected to increase from 196 billion messages per day in 2007, to 374 billion messages per day in 2011. That’s a lot of traffic… and a lot of interruptions and distractions. According to distraction theory, an interruption is defined as “an externally generated, randomly occurring, discrete event that breaks continuity of cognitive focus on a primary task”. Traditional good management says that distractions slow productivity as people tend to work more efficiently if they can focus on one task until it is completed. Interruptions, on the other hand, mean they have to switch from one train of thought to another… over and over again. The frequency of interruptionsIn 2006, Time Magazine reported on a study by Basex, a New York-based research firm of 1000 knowledge workers (those who handle information), that found email interruptions consumed an average of 2.1 hours a day, or 28 per cent of the workday. The two hours of lost productivity included not only unimportant interruptions and distractions, but also the recovery time associated with getting back on task. The Basex study estimated that the lost time cost the US economy US$588 billion. In November 2007, the Wall Street Journal reported that the average corporate employee dealt with over 142 emails per day, and spent over 26 per cent of their day dealing with email – a very similar finding to the one above. Another US study done in 2003 found that the recovery time for a phone interruption is at least 15 minutes. The recovery interruption from an email interruption is 64 seconds (they measured this by videotaping user sessions). Seventy per cent of users reacted to a new message indicator within six seconds of seeing it (almost as fast as a telephone call), 80 per cent reacted within two minutes of seeing the indicator. The frequency of email interrupts, they found, was far higher than telephone interrupts, meaning that the 64 second recovery time is multiplied by the number of such interruptions. And, in yet another study (2005) of IT professionals by Osterman Research, it was found that more than two out of three people checked their emails almost continually. The effect of interruptionsLast year, Glasgow University did some research on the effects of email interruptions on users. It found that 34 per cent of people felt “stressed” by the sheer number of emails and the obligations to respond quickly. For many, email was considered to be a near real-time medium and that the sender was somehow sitting at the other end of the email thread waiting for an answer.Unlike phone calls or face-to-face meetings, people can communicate via email without both paying attention at the same time, or the originator having any idea what the other person is up to when an email is dispatched. In most offices, people leave their email client or application running while they beaver away at other things. As a consequence, every time there is an incoming email, they get notified. MS Outlook will even impose itself with an on-screen alert in addition to the audio alert, to let you know who has sent you a message and provide you with the subject line. The sender interrupts your train of thought and the system is just begging you to come and have a look. This applies even to the spammer who managed to slip past your firewall. This is not a good thing. What do you do? If you are like most people, you have a look to see what’s up. If it’s spam, you’ll delete it. If it is personal, you’ll possibly send a short reply immediately. If it is work and/or task related, you will either compose a response there and then, or leave it for later. Chances are you’ll probably answer immediately. If you do, you have interrupted your other train of thought. In fact, your thoughts are probably interrupted anyway. You aren’t in control – the system is! Here’s a thought: why not turn off all the alerts? Emails can pile up in your inbox and you won’t even know it until you make a conscious effort to ‘clear the mail’. For that matter, why not consider turning off the email client (application) until you are ready to ‘clear the mail’. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t answer emails promptly, but why not consider the timing to be on your terms, not the sender’s? Why not check emails whenever you have already been interrupted? – after a meeting, before or after you go to lunch, after you have been interrupted by a visitor. In 2005, a psychiatrist at King's College in London administered IQ tests to three groups: the first did nothing but perform the IQ test, the second was distracted by email and ringing phones and the third group was stoned on marijuana. Not surprisingly, the first group did better than the other two by an average of 10 points. The emailers, on the other hand, did worse than the stoners by an average of six points. How do you get over this problem? [The answer is not less email, more drugs].Consider this…Here’s an auto-response I received recently from someone in the US:Dear All, In an effort to escape the inbox and get real work done, I will be reading and responding to email twice daily at 11am and 4pm, Pacific Standard Time. If you need a response before one of those two times, please don't hesitate to call me on my cell phone at [Number deleted]. Thanks! MarkIt’s highly probable that many of the issues raised with my colleague above may have resolved themselves by the time that he gets round to his twice daily routine of dealing with email. Which raises two significant points: If you are going to clear emails a set times during the day, make sure you read the entire thread before responding. Dealing with emails after a delay may mean you have less to deal with.A couple of years ago, I was working as a consultant on the premises of a large government organisation and was given an email address for that company. Now, this is a large organisation and a great deal of information was widely circulated. In fact, I would receive 40 to 60 emails each day which were sent as general circulars to all personnel. That’s 40-60 per day! And I wasn’t even a member of staff. Were they of interest to me? Only when one announced the bun-lady had arrived and was in reception. We all accept that email can be a very effective communication medium. You send messages to others, you receive messages from others. Some of these messages are mere data transmission – FYIs, so you know what's going on. Some are ‘noise’ — “thank yous”, “got its”, jokes, etc.  And some, perhaps many, are problem solving. You hear about a problem, and you respond with a possible solution, or a possible approach, or more questions. It’s easy – you get an email, you think (sometimes) and you respond. And then you think it’s done… except when it’s not. Some problems just never get solved via email and as soon as you have that kind of problem, you have to stop, immediately, before you make the problem worse.Use a filtering system you already haveMost people succeed at managing their desks. 'In' bins, 'Out' bins, 'To Do' files. In those piles are things that can wait, items that have to be addressed today, and possibly muffin remnants from a busy morning. What is usually not there is the compulsion to handle every piece of paper as it hits your desk. How many paper items do you deal with right then and send back?Why should email be different? Take the same system you use on your desk and apply it to your inbox folder structure. If you have a system that works, make it pervasive. Learn to use the filters in your email application to put emails directly into folders. Think about what is important and give it the appropriate priority. Respond to priority emails quickly, and let the rest gather a bit of dust. Grouping email this way lets you look hard wired to your keyboard for the important items, and gives you time to sit and concentrate every so-many hours to respond to others of less priority or higher complexity.Sensitive or complex issues should never receive 'a shot from the hip'. If the medium was snail mail, you’d think through your response very carefully before sending the reply. Email should be no different and should warrant the same degree of formality. For example, never, ever, criticise someone in email. For reasons which I have never fully grasped, any negative emotion is always amplified by communication through email. Sometimes you intend to be critical — someone has done something dumb, or said something silly, or emailed something ridiculous.  Resist the urge to reply. Sometimes you don't mean to be critical, you're just making an observation, engaging in a debate or adding facts to a discussion. If at any time you sense that the recipient has taken your email as criticism, you should immediately switch media. Try face-to-face or a phone call to end the thread. Also remember, everything you write in an email is a public and permanent record. You might think it is a ‘throwaway’ when you write it, but it’ll traverse a public network and could sit on a server — yours or the recipients — for a long time. If you don’t want it to come back and haunt you, don’t send it. I’d also suggest avoiding any and all debates being conducted via email. I've seen threads lasting weeks with people restating their points of view and nothing getting settled. It also seems email can have the effect of polarizing the debate and the combatants end up further apart in their views than when the debate began. If you sense this happening, again switch media, save yourself some time and grief, and get on the phone. Also using the same rules you have established for paper communication, be judicious in whom you send emails to and who you copy. The fewer people on your paper trail, the fewer responses you will have to deal with. In this case less means less. And while you are at it, unsubscribe to any newsletters you don’t (or seldom) read. And, handle email only once. If you open it, and can deal to it in two minutes or less, do it now.  Change your system settingsIf you want to be less distracted, turn off the sound and pop up new mail alerts to avoid distraction. Some would even advocate closing the application so there is no chance you’ll sneak a peek to see what may have arrived since the last time you looked. The bottom line for organisational policy makersEstablish an organisation or department-wide protocol for effective and efficient email processing strategies, for example, establishing ‘no email hours’ (or days). This also encourages face-to-face communication.Establish a priority scheme for responding to emails. Define priorities for each category of email that arrives and process accordingly. Refrain from using the first-in, first-out (FIFO) approach lasting, discourage continuous email processing.For the individual worker* Process email two to four times a day only!

* Set specific times in a day for processing emails.* Set up filtering and prioritisation rules* Turn off alerts!About the contributor:MIKE McLAUGHLIN is the managing director and principal consultant of Mimac Marketecture, a specialist practice consulting in the provision of telecommunications, telephony and contact-centre services. He is the former Publisher of IT Brief. Phone: 64-9-361 2178Email:

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