The true cost of email and IM: You only have 1 hour and 12 minutes of uninterrupted productive time a day

It’s probably safe to say we all spend longer than we’d like on email and instant messengers like Slack. They’re always there in the background, compelling us to click over for a “quick” check in. But these switches add up and fracture blocks of time where we’d otherwise be more focused.

Which made us ask: How much of your day is spent multitasking with communication tools? And just how bad is it for your productivity?

By looking at the anonymized data of close to 50,000 RescueTime users, we discovered a pattern of communication multitasking that was more severe than we had imagined.

40% of your productive time at work is spent multitasking

There’s a ton of research showing that multitasking is bad for us. In fact, studies show it’s pretty much impossible. When we try to “multitask” our brains are actually just switching quickly back and forth between tasks. Instead of making us more efficient, multitasking ends up sapping our productivity, killing our focus, and adding to our stress level.

However, most of us don’t consider the way we use email or instant messenger as multitasking.

We happily keep our inbox or Slack open all day while working on other projects and think nothing of it. But this is multitasking.

And worse, it’s multitasking in a way that leaves us constantly open to interruptions and disruption. (I mean, you wouldn’t want your bus driver reading the newspaper while taking you to work, right?)

When we looked at the time people spending ‘checking in’ on emails or instant messenger, we found that the average knowledge worker spends 40.1% of their productive time a day multitasking with communication tools.

communication multitasking

This means, nearly half the time you spend on productive tasks (whether that’s writing or software development or design) is also spent multitasking with email and instant messengers.

Now, why is this an issue? For one, we’ve become addicted to answering emails and notifications as quickly as possible, at the expense of other work.

In one study, Thomas W. Jackson of Loughborough University found 70% of all emails received were opened within 6 seconds of their receipt.

Once you check an email, it takes you an average of 64 seconds to resume your original task. Even worse, another study found that when an email involves doing something outside our inbox, it takes over 9 minutes to return to the original task.

The average knowledge worker only has 1h 12m of productive time a day without being interrupted by email and IM

Looking at total time spent without communication multitasking, our research found the average knowledge worker only has 1 hour and 12 minutes a day for completely focused work.

That’s barely one hour a day (or 6 total hours a week) without the negative effects of multitasking with communication tools.

Communication multitasking totals

While email and IM are necessities for doing most modern jobs, this number shows just why it can feel so hard to get meaningful work done every day.

Want to know where your time is actually going? Sign up for RescueTime for free and get an accurate picture of how you spend time on your digital devices. 

How communication multitasking is affecting our productivity

We can probably all agree that spending too long on email during the day isn’t great. In fact, when Gloria Mark of UC, Irvine, studied the effects of email on stress and productivity, she found:

“The longer daily duration spent on email, the lower the assessed productivity and the higher the stress.”

However, if just spending too long on communication tasks is making us more stressed and less productive, what about the compounding effects of multitasking and ‘checking in’ constantly?

Constant switching fragments our workday and trains our mind out of focus mode

We might be used to bouncing between email and Google docs, Slack, and other tools. But every time you switch contexts like this to do a single task, you’re fragmenting your workday. And it’s taking a toll on your focus.

In one study, Gloria Mark found that, in general, workers average only 3 minutes on any given task before switching and about 2 minutes using any digital tool before switching.

By not working for long, uninterrupted periods, we’re effectively training our minds out of focus mode and making them more vulnerable to distraction.

We’re exposing ourselves to an unnecessary risk of interruption

When you think of what gets in the way of focused work, you probably assume it’s some external interruption. However, Mark explains that we’re just as likely to interrupt ourselves as to be interrupted by an external source.

When we constantly leave our communication tools open, we’re exposing ourselves to both internal and external interruptions.

Even worse, Mark found that once interrupted, we rarely go right back to the task at hand. Instead, she found that not only do we engage in an average of two or more intervening activities, but it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds before we go back to our original task.

Now, think about what happens when you casually glance at your email.

If you’re lucky, all you’ll see are a few tasks you have to deal with at some point. However, you might also get a message that completely takes up your day and pushes you into a bad mood.

And while it might feel like you need to urgently respond to every email that comes in, do you? (There’s a reason you can’t email 911.)

Constantly multitasking with communication tools tricks us into thinking they’re the most important part of our day.

Juggling tasks makes everything take longer

One of the ways psychologists measure the effects of multitasking is to compare how long it takes us to do a task uninterrupted versus when we try to “juggle” multiple ones at once.

It’s probably no surprise that multitasking slows us down. But the research around task switching shows something even more interesting: The more complex a task, the more time is lost.

In other words, when you multitask with communication tools—which often require time to understand context, a certain level of deep thought, and enough willpower and focus to get through it—you’re essentially hitting the brakes on your productivity.

According to Dr. David Meyer, “even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.

Communication tools are necessary. But it’s up to you to use them well.

It’s easy to downplay how much of an impact leaving communication tools open can have on your productivity.

But, as author and CEO Dorie Clark writes in Harvard Business Review, it’s the very nature of email and IM, not how time-consuming they are, that makes them so stressful:

“Recognizing the downstream consequences and impact on one’s time is essential when evaluating your decision [to deal with an email].”

Our research shows that the majority of us have a problem with multitasking communication tools. And while there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to when to use communication tools, it is your choice how you use them.

The next time you feel like jumping into email for “just a second,” take a moment to think about the true cost of that action.

Do you think multitasking with email and communication tools is disrupting your workday? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter

Sign Up for the Newsletter

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Jory MacKay

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

18 comments

  1. Can you split your research by country? I bet the results can lead to some interesting cultural differences..

    1. That’s a great idea Luciano. We’re going to start doing some comparative analysis and I’ll definitely look into splitting things up by location.

  2. You graphed the median, and then discussed the “average” worker. Those things are not the same.

  3. I often try to just switch off everything. Which results in colleagues showing up at my desk asking if I read the email or slack message they send ten seconds ago.

    1. Yep that is the response. I have all the tools and access at home as I do in the office for meetings and or communications. I told my boss that we should have min one day a week to work from home to Isolate these larger project and or tasks, sprints and backlogs. He liked the Idea so much, he’s now doing it too and feels he can get 2 + days of work done in one day.

      Your colleagues can still IM or email you but not as easy of convenient to just show up at your desk and have to work for something rather then swinging by. I find I work longer when remote as well. I know not everyone is in a positions to work from home, but works and work well for me. Being a IBM for over 15 Years Guess just use to it as that wht way IBM worked for 20 Years. Home-office,, Remote or at customers.

  4. The communication multitasking is driving me CRAZY. The author always feels their issue takes precedence. My position also requires constant external multitasking. I am salary paid and end up staying hours over just to make sure my own job tasks are completed. At least I do not receive anymore emails or IMs after hours!

    1. I’m in the exact same situation… I’m going to be switching over to hourly work, and will need to set clear guidelines on and workflows to make sure I’m not being pulled into ancillary work while responsibilities I’m being held accountable for suffer.

  5. Being a species of habitual habit, I understand the principal and underlying facts but one still needs to review emails, and other sorts of media, that could pose importance to the type of work you’re doing. You just can’t ignore this form of communication, especially when an important matter might arise, that needs to be dealt with immediately.
    Begin, with a new startup communication system and implement this into your program, with other co-workers.

    William Kacensky

    1. I wish I was able to set my email client to only alert me (that a new message has arrived) if it is important/urgent. Otherwise, I would read it on my own time.

  6. The bottom line is that you can do a few things well or you can do a whole bunch of things halfway.

  7. I had this discussion for decade plus with people. Humans do not Multitask as much as you think you can or may you don’t, Sorry! We are best sequential processes that functions to get the best out of each of us.

    Don’t believe me Try this create a list of 10 major tasks or projects you have to preform or are part of. Then take 5 in Multitasks mode, the other 5 in sequential mode (Ie. dedicated 2.5 days to only one task at a time. At the end of the week if tasks projects are equal?

    Review you or others yo gave these tasks or projects to and get a status of what completed. 9 of 10 times you see it’s the sequential tasks that are truly completed with less mistakes or errors to the Multitask mode that has tasks started and most cases not completed and or has more mistakes and errors that now need to be corrected adding more time to the process.

    So yes this report or article does not surprise me

  8. I’d also like to see how the breakdown is between age groups. Just curious if you have the information readily available – are the millennials better equipped than older generations?

  9. It seems there is much pressure on us to pursue these interuptive actions. …How come you didn’t answer my message? I need to be able to trust you to respond sooner than the hour it took for you to reply…

  10. Wages have gone down and the cost of living up, maybe those people don’t care because they can shuffle on to another job where they’re paid less than their time/labor is worth. Or maybe they’re talking to the boss at job #2-4.

  11. So great to know that someone understands that we are expending more energy to do less while under the impression that we are advancing in some way. The digital revolution has only helped the man behind the curtain to infiltrate our lives and control everything we think and do. The rest of us are working harder than ever and getting less and less for it.

  12. This is a huge problem for so many of us! As a Productivity Coach, I always recommend my clients look at “batching” their tasks (including checking and responding to email and other communications) throughout the day, and facilitating longer stretches of focus by turning off alerts and notifications when appropriate. There’s very little that can’t wait one hour (or 30 minutes at least) and most of us are reachable another way if there’s a true emergency!

Comments are closed.