Can we talk for a minute about why email sucks so much?

email-sux

Consider the following scenario: You’ve been working hard all day, feeling like you’re being productive, and you look up at the clock and see that it’s 5pm. A strange feeling washes over you, as you realize you have no clue how it got so late, and you can’t make sense of where your day went. It’s just an unexplainable 8-hour blur.

That feeling sucks. It sucks so badly, in fact, that it’s one of the reasons we built RescueTime, so we could understand what was actually going on with our days.

Have you ever had a day like that? If so, I’ll let you in on a secret…

If you’re like most people who spend their days at the computer, those days probably have a lot to do with email.

Email has become the glue that ties our workdays together. We can communicate with pretty much anyone, anywhere, anytime. Interactions that used to require scheduling a face to face meeting or phone call can be handled asynchronously. All things considered, it’s pretty amazing. But, that ease of communication can create a deluge that can drag down your entire day if you’re not careful.

In the average 5-day work week, about a day and a half of it is spent on email

That’s right. Email takes up around 28% of the average desk worker’s day. This has borne out in several studies, and we’ve seen similar numbers across our user base. That’s just shy of two and a half hours in an eight hour day (or 11.2 hours per week) It may seem like a lot, but even that number doesn’t tell the whole story. There are many factors that cause email to take a huge toll on our productivity, even if you have the best spam filters. Being aware of these can help you avoid falling into some serious productivity traps.

Three reasons email sucks

One: Switching tasks all day comes at a price

multitasking

For many people, email is always on. It’s a ubiquitous layer on top of any other work that’s happening. Either there is a browser tab open with Gmail, or Outlook is running in the background, just to make sure nothing important gets missed. It’s pretty easy to think “it’ll just take a minute to respond to this email, that’s not hurting my productivity that much.” Besides, if you aren’t responsive, aren’t you dragging down other people’s productivity who may be waiting to hear back from you?

First of all, all those quick responses throughout the day add up. We tend to be really bad at estimating the sum total of time that it takes.

But it gets worse… that one minute it takes to respond is just the starting point. You then have to get back to what you were working on, and that’s surprisingly harder than it seems. That “re-focusing time” has been the subject of numerous studies, and has been shown to last anywhere from one to twenty-three minutes. Even more troubling, there are many tasks that are simply never returned to after dealing with the interruption.

Part of the reason for this refocusing lag may be that the way we use email forces our brains to work differently. The randomness of email, and our desire to be responsive, causes our brains to switch to a state of high-alert, continually on the lookout for new input. Most of that activity takes place in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is where our fight-or-flight response comes from. That’s different from how our brains tend to act when we’re in a state of flow or deep thought, with most of the activity occurring in the pre-frontal cortex. [source]

With that in mind, the cost of always-on communications starts to become more apparant.

Two: Email is always unfinished business

infinity-emailChances are, if you look at your job description, “managing your inbox” probably isn’t listed as one of your primary duties. But the problem with email is that it’s a never ending task. There are always new emails coming in, and when you respond to an email, it usually results in a response back. The cycle just keeps spinning. Since your inbox keeps filling up, it’s easy to let it occupy a permanent, growing space in your mind. As you work on other tasks (probably the ones that actually are on your job description), your inbox which may or may not be exploding with something important sticks around in your mental space, causing a huge distraction. I’ve often found myself mid-stream on a project, then unconsciously tabbing over to my email, sometimes several times a minute. It’s infuriating.

There’s a psychological explanation for this, called the Zeigarnik Effect, which summarized as:

“It seems to be human nature to finish what we start and, if it is not finished, we experience dissonance.”

Three: Email is a one-stop shop that’s full of distractions

wenger_giant_knifeI’ve heard email described as “a firehose that we have to drink from”, and it’s certainly ubiquitous. It’s become a hub for our entire work day. It’s a single place that we’ve organically grown to use for many different reasons. It’s for communicating with your colleagues. And your customers… And personal communications… And it’s your task list (“I’ll just leave this in my inbox so it’ll remind me to follow up”)… And it’s your knowledge base (“I’ll just email this to the group to spread the knowledge around”)… Sometimes it’s a file system (“I’ll need this file tonight at home, so I’ll just email it to myself”)… On top of all of that, it’s the default notification repository for pretty much any other system you might be using.

The number of use-cases you can shoehorn email into is impressive. There’s a certain elegance to it, too. It’s this single place that you can keep an eye on everything. The downside of that, is that every time you go into it, you have to contend with that “everything”, even if you’re only trying to focus on one specific thing.

Instead of a boutique shop, it’s a Wal-Mart.

So what to do about it?

Ok, ok, It’s real easy to opine about how much email is overwhelming and problematic. There are countless blog posts about it. I even spoke at a conference devoted to it last week. The trickier part is figuring out practical ways of dealing with it. In most cases, you generally can’t easily just stop using it. It would be really disruptive to your company, and unless you’re the CEO, you can’t really get away with being that weirdo that says “oh, don’t send me an email, I won’t read it.”

The bummer is, there’s not a single solution that works for everyone. That said, with a little trial and error, it’s easy to find some strategies that will work for you. Here are several ideas and resources to get you started.

Optimize your inbox to support good habits

If you use Gmail, here’s a way to set up your inbox that pretty much forces you out of the habit of letting things just pile up. If you read a message, it disappears unless you take action on it. I’ve been using this one for the past few weeks and it’s great.

Set up some metrics to monitor your inbox health

Here’s a look at how one knowledge worker visualized the state of his inbox to understand how it was getting out of control.

With RescueTime, you can see exactly how all that time adds up. Here’s a post explaining one of our communication reports that helps you understand your communications time.

If you want to get hardcore about it, use Beeminder to make a financial commitment to shrinking your inbox (and get some interesting stats along the way).

Turn off all your notifications

Many changes to your email use require cultivating a new habit, or getting used to a new piece of software. This tactic is great because it simply means turning a bunch of stuff off. Take 10 minutes to go through all your devices and turn off everything that beeps, buzzes, blinks, or bounces in your dock. I did this last year, and after a few days the difference it made was so great that I’ll never go back.

Shift your communications elsewhere

When I read Claire Burge’s recent article about funneling all her communications away from email to other systems, I was skeptical. I mean, pushing all your personal communications to Twitter or Facebook seems even worse, right? You’re moving your communications to a platform that has distraction baked directly into their business model! And isn’t having your business communications spread across five project management systems obviously much less efficient than having everything in a single place?

On the other hand, if you are going to Facebook to deal with personal communications, it doesn’t really matter that you’re getting distracted, because social interaction is the whole reason you went there in the first place. Similarly, when you go to Basecamp to interact with a customer, you’re in an environment that’s walled off from anything not related to that customer. Perhaps most interestingly, when you do this, you allow email to stop being this over-crowded place that constantly needs monitoring. Breaking it up into smaller silos, it forces you to treat communications as a set of distinct tasks, rather than a single monolith that won’t ever be finished, no matter how much effort you put in.

So try moving your personal communications to Facebook, or your work-related discussions to LinkedIn. If it’s practical, try to shift your project related discussions to a dedicated project management environment like Basecamp or Asana.

For more inspiration, here’s another account of a CEO’s journey into a world without e-mail.

Let the robots do the work for you

Boomerang gives you some power-user tools that let you offload some of the mental overhead of email. The company who makes it also makes Inbox Pause (which does exactly that, pauses your inbox until you’re ready for new messages), and the Email Game (a nifty little game which forces you to work through your inbox).

You can also use a service like Unroll.me or Sanebox to move all your bulk email to a single place, allowing you to focus on personalized communications while you’re in your inbox. AwayFind is another option, letting you set up smart notification alerts so you don’t have to worry about missing important emails.

That’s not an exhaustive list of tactics, but it’s a starting point. Here’s some further reading:

What do you think?

I’m curious what strategies you’ve found to cope with email overload. Have you found anything that seems to work particularly well? If so, let us know in the comments!


3 Comments on “Can we talk for a minute about why email sucks so much?”

  1. I can remember talking to you, Robby, about how to become more aware of our time spent on email (and at that point, I didn’t even see a “problem”). It’s been a 6 month journey since both cutting back on time in the inbox and making that time even more productive!

    When I look at my Rescuetime stats since July 2012, I see Gmail times slowly dropping from 16-20+ hours per week to around 12, and recently under 9-10 hours per week. I attribute this to a new way of processing email (described here and mentioning Rescuetime: http://blog.writethat.name/7-simple-ways-to-get-to-inbox-zero-every-day/ ).

    I think I can get it down to even lower– time to establish 90-minute Rescuetime alerts— and will keep you posted. Going from 50% of my work week to less than 15% in a year would be stellar!

    Best from Paris,
    Brad

    • Robby Macdonell says:

      Thanks for sharing! Good stuff in that post, I think “DO NOT sit in your inbox” is a good way of articulating one of email’s big problems. It turns into the default place to land after finishing any other task.

      Good luck cutting it back even further!

  2. talgur says:

    Brilliant post. I especially like the gmailzero solution…