Communication Overload: Our research shows most workers can’t go 6 minutes without checking email or IM

There’s no getting over the fact that you need to use email and other communication tools to do your job. And despite all the outcries over email taking over our lives, this isn’t wasted time.

Communication in the workplace is important. But, if we’re constantly switching our focus to check emails or Slack messages, we never have the chance to truly focus on our most important work.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in a recent study that found with email alone, 84% of users keep their inbox open in the background at all times with 70% of emails being opened within 6 seconds of receipt.

We clearly have an issue being constantly pulled into communication tools. And while we explored the effects of multitasking with communication tools in a previous post, we wanted to get a better idea of just how bad this level of context switching is throughout an average day.

Here’s what we discovered:

The average knowledge worker “checks in” on email and IM every 6 minutes

For knowledge workers—like writers, designers, developers, and project managers—the modern workplace is run on communication tools. Increasingly, our jobs rely on more collaboration, more access to information, and more questions being answered in real time.

However, while communication tools are great for giving us quick access to the answers we need, they’re also a constant source of interruption to our focused work.

But just how bad is it?

When we looked at the anonymized behavior data of 50,000+ RescueTime users, we found that the average knowledge worker “checks in” with communication tools every 6 minutes.

time between checking emails

The average knowledge worker 'checks in' with communication tools every 6 minutes. Click To Tweet

(In this case, a “check in” is defined as any time you switch to a communication tool while working on another productive task.)

All this raises a huge question: How are we expected to get focused work done when we only have a few minutes in between answering emails and messages?

The short answer is we aren’t.

In fact, while 6 minutes was the median we found, the full breakdown looked equally grim.

What we discovered was that 35.5% of workers check their email and IM every 3 minutes or less. While only 18.6% can go more than 20 minutes without being pulled into communication.

time between checking email buckets

Even worse, we found that people who use Slack—a popular team communication tool meant to reduce email use—actually switched to communication tools more often. Rather than streamlining our communication time, Slack users on average spent only 5 minutes in between communication check ins, while non-Slack users could go 8 minutes.

40% of knowledge workers never get 30 minutes straight of focused time in a workday

But wait a second. These are just averages. There must be periods of time where we’re checking in with communication tools a lot and others where we go long periods being focused, right?

Not exactly.

We all know that to do our best work we need long stretches of focused time. Unfortunately, our data shows that we rarely get this time for deep work.

In fact, our research found that the average knowledge worker maxes out at around 40 minutes straight of focused time free from communication.

email overload: max consecutive time

And again, this was the median. When we dug into the numbers, the data told an even bigger story.

17% of people can’t even get 15 minutes straight of focused time without communication. While only 30% get an hour a day of dedicated focused time.

Max non-communication time buckets

40% of knowledge workers never get more than 30 straight minutes of focused time in a workday. Click To Tweet

If you feel like you’re struggling to find focused time in the workday, you’re not alone.

All these “check-ins” turn your focus into Swiss cheese

We think this data paints a pretty clear picture of how much communication overload happens in the modern workplace. But to really understand what this data means, we wanted to bring it down to the individual level.

Using RescueTime data scientist Madison Lukaczyk’s own data, we found that over an entire week, she only had 8 half-hour blocks of productive work where she didn’t check in on email or IM:

One week of email

To get an even more in-depth look, let’s zoom in on one of those hour blocks:

On June 5th, between 10–11am, Madison switched to a communication tool in 3 of 12 five-minute blocks. This means that while she was working, communication tools were present during 25% of that hour.

You might only spend a short amount of total time on email and IM, but these tools are ‘present’ during half your day

How you use email and communication tools will be dependent on the nature of your job. However, we can probably all agree that we’d like more blocks of uninterrupted time to focus and do meaningful work.

In fact, when looking at Madison’s data, we found that while she only spent 21% of her total time on email and IM, those tools were present during 44% of her day.

A high presence rate doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re being distracted by communications. But if your daily communications presence rate is much higher than your total time spent on those tools, you’re likely being distracted by them.

Where do we go from here?

The modern workplace is filled with distractions. And we’re not doing ourselves any favors by constantly checking in on our communication tools.

While we’ll never be able to get rid of email and IM from the workday (and wouldn’t want to). Being aware of just how present they are can help us make better choices about how we use them.

Many productivity experts have suggested batching communications into specific blocks during the day. While others have suggested committing to an hour or more of focused work without email or IM during parts of your day when you’re less likely to be needed (like early in the morning).

Whatever works for you and your role, it’s probably safe to say that being purposeful in when and how you check in with communication tools is better for your productivity and focus than letting them take over half your day.

Do you feel like you struggle to find focused time in the workplace free from communication? Let us know what you think of this data in the comments below or on Twitter

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

2 comments

  1. Interesting post and study. Is there also a way to see in RescueTime Premium how my data compares? I’d love to see how fractured or focused my attention is. And how that compares to this study to see if I’m beating the average. 🙂 A chart like the one you show from Madison would be awesome!

    1. Hey Jos! This is a feature we’ve been actively working on and should have more info on soon. Glad to hear it’s something you’re interested in.

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