Is email making you unproductive?

Science is starting to catch up with what many of us figured out a while ago. Multi-tasking is not good. We accomplish more when we focus on one task, minimize distraction and have a bit of down time every hour or so.

In a “Case Study: Evaluating the Effect of Email Interruptions within the Workplace” by Thomas Jackson, Ray Dawson & Darren Wilson, the impacts from frequent email interruption have been studied and documented. Studies have been out for a while about the highly disruptive nature of telephone calls and personal visits in the workplace. It takes us up to 20 minutes to recover from a phone call or a personal visit. The study shows that while there is a much lower recovery time for email, the average worker will still be interrupted 64 seconds for every email read or responded to.

Just think, if you get 5 phone calls or personal visits a day and say 25 emails, that is over two hours a day of just recovering from interruptions. This doesn’t even count the multitude of unproductive meetings that most organizations have daily.

Here are a few tips to make better use of your time, stay focused and be more productive:

1) My tip has always been to turn your email off for a couple hours every day. For this to work you should try and pick the same few hours and set expectations with peers, staff and your supervisor. This is the time to do your hard projects, brainstorming and creative work. I also believe in blocking your calendar so you always have a few productive hours that can’t be blocked for meetings.

2) If you don’t feel like you can turn email off completely, at least turn off the automatic notifications. At a minimum turn off the pop-ups and sound alerts that a new email has arrived. Even better – set your update so you only get new email every 15-60 minutes. This applies to making good use of time when when you aren’t at work as well. When I’m away from the office, I don’t have my phone get auto updates, I only do manual updates. That way, I am not tied to the job, but generally will check in once an evening or a time or two on the weekends – on my schedule.

3) Restrict the number of people that are on an email to only the essential people. Try not to use “reply to all”. This just means you get that many more replies and it is disrespectful of other’s in-boxes.

4) I have my email setup so that messages from the boss, a high profile client or direct staff show up in a color or move to the top. If you don’t know all the cool rules, formatting and alerts you can do in your email application, do a quick tutorial. It will be time well invested.

5) Finally, work on changing the culture in your workplace.

  • Train staff on how to use email rules, alerts and formatting.
  • Encourage people to pick up the phone or stop by or even schedule a meeting – when it makes sense. If an email has gone back and forth more than once, it probably requires some direct interaction. And vice versa, I know some of you are old school, but dropping by someone’s office or picking up the phone is not always the best way. Sometimes a quick email, text or instant message is much more efficient.
  • Work on shifting the culture so that managers and peers understand, believe and embrace that instant-reply is NOT a good business practice.

Bottom line is that you and your staff will be more focused, get more done and frankly have more sanity at the end of the day if you are disciplined in managing your time. All tasks are not created equal. Consistently try to focus on the 80/20 – the 20% of the tasks that make 80% of the difference.

Here’s a link to the study:



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