Email is the Addiction of Choice for Busy Workers

Have you ever found yourself sending an email to someone with the complaint that you get too many emails? Email is the addiction of choice for busy workers. We find ourselves using it more and more, and at the same time it's painful to watch as our inbox grows. It's time for an intervention. 


According to this study, communication is the top two challenges for project managers:

  1. Too many emails – 52%

  2. Ineffective communication between team members – 48%

I have a sneaky suspicion that those are related.

And yet, we love to hear that little ding that something special has arrived in our inbox. The temptation is to stop what you are doing and check to see who's knocking on your email door. But there is a problem with this: every time you check email there is a cost, not only in the time spent reading those emails but also the time spent switching to email. According to Cal Newport, author of Deep Work:

The main productivity cost of email is not the time you spend reading and replying to messages, but instead the abrupt context shift caused when you switch your attention from the task at hand to the cognitive cacophony of an inbox.

That's right – even if you only glance over to see how many emails you received, you pay a price. Getting back to the work you left reduces your cognitive capacity with an attention residue. This means that it takes 10 to 20 minutes to get back into that state of productive concentration to get deep work done.

Surely it can't be that bad, you say; I know I check my email pretty often, but it doesn't really affect me. And yet, researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London studied 1,100 workers and found that multitasking with electronic media caused a greater decrease in IQ than smoking pot or losing a night's sleep. The temptation to multi-task is greater than ever, and it is making you dumber.

No, not me, you say, I'm a multi-tasking wizard. Well, I have some bad news for you. The Energy Project Audit found that 69% of workers have difficulty focusing on one thing at a time and are easily distracted during the day – especially by email. So yeah, I'm talking to you.

If that wasn't bad enough, beside the brain impairment of checking email, the sheer amount of time we are spending in email keeps us from getting work done, unless your whole job is to answer email (please tell me no). A McKinsey Global Institute study found that the average worker spends 13 hours a week on email. Do the math. Ok, since you're not going to do the math I'll do it for you – that's 28% of your work week!

So here are some methods you can use to get yourself unhooked from the email addiction and get a little more productivity during your week:

1)      Only check email twice a day.

How often do you really need to check and respond to email? I'm all for making sure you answer, but I bet most people are not going to panic if your response comes back at 3p rather than immediately. That's pretty much the point of email – it can sit there for a while. If someone needs immediate feedback, don't use email.

2)      Write longer emails.

This one is a little less intuitive – it's like asking someone to stop eating so much by eating a little more. Cal Newport calls this a process-centric reply, and it works like this:

  • When sending or replying to an email, identify the goal this emerging email thread is trying to achieve. For example, perhaps its goal is to synchronize a plan for an upcoming meeting with a collaborator or to agree on a time to grab coffee.

  • Next, come up with a process that gets you and your correspondent to this goal while minimizing the number of back and forth messages required.

  • Explain this process in the email so that you and your recipient are on the same page.

So when someone emails you with something like "Want to grab coffee?" you don't respond with "Sure, when?" This is the Sisyphus version of email purgatory.

Instead you write an email back that provides enough information so that no more emails are needed. Does it take a little longer to write? More than likely. But Cal argues that the benefit isn't the length of time you spend on email, but how many times you open it.

Combining numbers 1 and 2 will help you go from email wimp, getting project management sand kicked in your face, to email warrior, strong in the ways of digital communication. But in reality the last step is the one with the most impact:

3)     Go talk to someone.

Seriously, I'm not joking. Get up from your desk and have an actual conversation, not a one-sided too-long text that goes back and forth without getting resolved. Yes, there is chit-chat, but that in itself is conducive to a more congenial work-place. And you get the whole whatever-you-are-working-on-thing figured out in a single discussion where you can get context and subtleties that never, ever exist in digital communication.

A discussion will beat an email every time. I know you don't believe me (at least, according to this study, you way overestimate how persuasive you are in email), but this Harvard article says that face-to-face is 34 times more effective than email. If I told you that you would get a 34x return on anything, you would run straight into a wall to get it.

Imagine your communication over the course of a week is 34 times more effective with your boss, 34 times more effective with your coworkers. How much miscommunication would be headed off? Could better decisions be made? How much more could you get done? Let's see what we can do to make communication a strength instead of an annoyance.

And please, don't send me an email letting me know what you think of this post…