Working Smarter

Beat Email Overload with the Email Etiquette Rulebook

Posted by Joe Robinson

Caffeine break to fuel more email triage

There are a lot of reasons why email has overwhelmed capacity to deal with it, but the main one is that it’s easy. It’s easy to click the send button, easy to not get up from your seat, easy to avoid speaking with someone in person about an issue. But that convenience is an illusion, because we don’t see the cumulative blowback. As we discussed in the Working Smarter blog last week, every email results in six emails—three going, three coming back, so we need a few more gallons of caffeine every day to triage through the mess. 

Cutting email tonnage, not only opens up more time to get our work done, it also reduces the damage to the chief productivity tool: attention. Managing email is really about managing the interruptions that fracture attention, as we’re forced to shift from primary task to secondary items, most of the time unrelated to what we’re doing.

The inability to keep attention on a task for longer than a nanosecond, not surprisingly, affects the quality of our work. Distracted minds don’t see the big picture, make decisions too quickly, send curt messages, can’t focus enough to produce innovative solutions, and have little semblance of work-life balance.

Download "Email & Attention Deficit"

Growing stacks of unread email also fuel overwhelm and a belief that things are out of control. That drives a perception you can’t cope with the avalanche, which sets off the stress response. Taking back control over email shuts down the feeling of chaos and with it, stress that drives poor decisions and health problems. So controlling email is a key stress management strategy.

SET THE TERMS OF ENGAGEMENT

We can get control back by choosing when we interact with email—by setting the terms of engagement with our devices, by checking email manually and turning off all the dingers and noisemakers. That means creating some boundaries—rules in a world where there are none. The way forward is determining limits/norms for information management in every team, department, and organization.

Unlike the telephone, which was adopted over a long enough period that we were able to develop rules for how to use it, e-tools arrived so suddenly and overwhelmingly that they were running the show before anyone knew how to use them effectively. But the good news is that, since there are no rules, they’re up for grabs. That means we can set some.

It’s amazing what can happen with a little law and order. Harvard’s Leslie Perlow did an experiment with a software company whose employees were working nights and weekends to get products completed on time. She instituted a program there called Quiet Time. For four hours a day, two in the morning, two in the late afternoon, there was to be no messaging, so people could concentrate and get their work done. The rest of the day people could revert to messaging as usual. The program resulted in productivity increases of 59% and 65% in the two message-free zones, and jumped 43% even in the period with normal interruptions, because minds were more focused and less harried. The company was able to complete a new product in record time without staff needing to work nights and weekends.

THE SECOND LAW OF EMAIL REDUCTION

Last week's blog introduced the first Law of Email Reduction ("Spay and Neuter to Cut Volume"): Do more in-person messaging. Our second email law is:

Rules for etool use control the abuse of email.

It holds that rules for e-tool use rein in the chaos and reduce the amount of time blown on messaging. It’s not hard to come up with ideas for email rules. We all know the stuff that drives us crazy about email. When I asked what rules they would like to see placed on email usage, managers at a large aviation firm licked their chops and gave me this list, which you may want to take some notes on:

• Deactivate the ‘reply-all’ function

• Develop a weekend code of ethics restricting email to emergencies

• Disable the ghost email alert notification

• Never expect an immediate response from an email

• Pick up the phone and call

• No emails between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.

• Only send email if there’s an action required

• Don’t send one-line “thank you” and “got it” messages

 

THE MOST IMPORTANT RULE OF EMAIL MANAGEMENT

No doubt, there are more than a few rules on that list you’d like for your own e-tool handbook. Here’s one of the most important rules that should be a part of any email etiquette book:

Keep email software turned off and check messages manually at set schedules.

There’s no reason to have computers and devices chiming like deranged glockenspiels all day, or blinking those annoying notifications in the corner of your monitor. Turning off message software will shut down the sound and light circus and keep intrusiveness to a minimum. You choose when you’re going to be interrupted, rather than leaving it to anyone with a random thought.

Some 68% of folks keep Outlook or Entourage on autocheck all day, checking continuously. One study (Jackson, 2003) found, that if you keep your system on autocheck every five minutes, you have a potential of 96 interruptions in the course of the day! You can slash that down to 11, if you check mail manually every 45 minutes.

That’s still a lot of checking. You can put a fence around email by restricting yourself to a few retrieval and sending times each day. Manual checking at specific schedules offers the least interruptions and maximum productivity. Try using what researchers have identified as the most optimum email schedules. Holding email to two checks a day results in significantly fewer hours worked daily compared to processing email continuously (Trafton, 2003, Jackson 2003). The most productive schedule is twice or four times a day, according to researchers at Oklahoma State.

When we control the checking, we stop the anarchy. There are a number of other rules that can be easily implemented in any team, department, or organization.

If you would like more rules to help manage email and are interested in an information management workshop at your organization, click the button below for more details. And send me your thoughts on email rules you would like to see.

Click for a Price Quote

There is light at the end of the email in-box.

Tags: email overload, productivity and email, email and stress, email and work-life balance, information management programs, information overload, work life balance programs

Email Overload: How to Cut the Volume Now

Posted by Joe Robinson

Down for the count with email overload

The confessions began to tumble out. One woman at a work-life balance workshop I was leading in New York raised her hand and said sheepishly, “I take my smartphone to bed.” 

“So do I,” chimed in another consultant quickly. “I’ve been sleeping with my phone for years,” offered a third woman.

This is what I call unrequited love. You give your devices undivided love and attention, and what do you get for it? The attention span of a gnat. Constant interruptions. And chronic stress that suppresses your immune system and takes your body down.

No matter what line of work you’re in these days, chances are good there’s only one business you’re really in—the clicking business—checking, sending and receiving piles of email from anyone with a random thought in their heads. How many hours of your day are sucked up by out-of-control messaging?

SPAY AND NEUTER YOUR EMAIL

It’s worth doing the calculating, because your best years are disappearing down the black hole of unbounded email. The average corporate user burns up three-plus hours a day on email, 133 emails and 77 Instant Messages. That adds up to a total of 100 DAYS a year doing nothing but email. That spills over into the nights and early mornings, making any semblance of work-life balance a mirage.

And then there’s the financial cost of email overload—all that lost productivity. Intel estimates that for a company with 50,000 knowledge workers the tab is $1 billion in lost productivity from email overload. Intel, along with Google, Microsoft and Xerox, formed the Information Overload Research Group to fight what they call “email pollution,” a good term for this blight blocking out work and life and cranking up stress.

The approach to email overload so far has been to just react to all the incoming. Get up earlier, stay later. But that’s not viable in a 24/7 world where the avalanche keeps on coming. As any engineer could tell you, we have structural limits.

To cut down on the deluge, you have to make changes that will actually reduce the volume of email. Email is the electronic rabbit, multiplying like oversexed cottontails. Every email has offspring, and they have offspring. A single message creates six messages—three going, three coming back, say researchers. Even at the standard rate of three minutes an email, that’s 18 minutes down the tubes for every email you send. Add it up. We have to spay and neuter our email.

I talked to a VP at a major technology firm in San Diego who gets more than 250 emails a day. He starts at 5 in the morning with two hours of email at home before going to work, then spends several hours more on message duty after he gets into his office. “It just seems like I can never catch up,” he told me, looking completely drained.

The sooner we can see email for the rabbit it is, the quicker we can keep the population down. Email plays on the social animal’s need for positive reinforcement, even if it’s just a canned reply-all mail or spam on the other end of the line. We have to understand how we are being played by this dynamic and use but not abuse the technology.

THE MORE YOU CHECK EMAIL, THE MORE YOU HAVE TO CHECK IT

In a study on email addiction, Rutgers University researcher Gayle Porter found that technology can be just as addicting as chemical or substance abuse. Have you ever had that feeling that you have to check email though you just checked it five minutes ago? That’s your impulse control out of control, thanks to the interruptions, which erode a part of your executive attention function that regulates impulsivity. The more you check email, the more you have to check it.

With friends like yourself around, who needs enemies?

Download "Email & Attention Deficit"

To actually cut the volume of email, we have to start reducing the tonnage. There are three ways to do that. We’ll cover the first law of email reduction in this blog.

Email Law # 1: Do More In-Person Messages

More phone and face-to-face contact seems like heresy, but the evidence at companies such as Deloitte & Touche and U. S. Cellular, which are mandating less email and more phone and face-to-face messaging, shows that reduced email increases productivity and builds rapport and relationships. Even former email addicts have come around to become true believers and are increasing their productivity through in-person messaging with co-workers.

Email is a handy tool to set up a phone conversation, in which you can handle all the issues in one go, instead of going back and forth in the usual volley of trying to extract the piece of information you need from someone who keeps sending fragments of the answer you’re looking for. You fire off an email to coordinate a time to speak on the phone or meet live. You can mention, if you like, that you’re on an email reduction drive and that this is a way to save both of you multiple emails.

This method combines the best of both worlds, using email for a specific and limited reason, and the phone to nail down all the back and forths that would normally be perpetuated by the email cottontails. You are respecting your colleagues’ time this way, and they will appreciate it.

RISING TO THE IMPORTANCE OF A PHONE MESSAGE

Email has overwhelmed our lives because it’s convenient. We don’t have to physically interrupt someone with a call or pop-in. In the old days, the message had to rise to the importance of a phone call before it entered the universe. It helped to limit messages to the most important ones. There are zero inhibitions to clicking email.

A manager at an aerospace company told me at a work-life workshop I conducted that he’s gotten his email-checking down to twice a day, while colleagues are indulging 20 times that often. He makes it clear that his preferred mode of communication is the phone and that an email needs to be worth sending before clicking. When he volunteered his solution before a group of fellow managers, their jaws hit the floor. He looked calm, unbeleaguered, in control of his destiny. He’d reined in the abuse with boundaries that worked.

If most of your mail is coming from outside your office, add “No Reply Necessary” to the subject line or body of the message to let the other person know they don’t have to get back to you. If the bulk of mail is coming from your team or department, use the 100-Foot Rule. Get up from your desk and deliver the message in person to anyone within 100 feet of your desk, and then expand it to 200 or 500 feet for a little extra exercise.

For every email you don’t send, you save 18 minutes (at the standard rate of three minutes an email). How many messages can you resist sending today and much time can you save?

If you'd like to know more about email management programs that can help your or your organization control information overload, click the button below:

 

Tags: email overload, productivity and email, too much email, information overload, work life balance programs

The Myth of Multitasking

Posted by Joe Robinson

Multitasking multiplies frustration

It's the gospel of productivity in a maxed-out world: Multitasking helps you get more done faster. The only thing is, it doesn't, says David Meyer, a cognitive scientist at the University of Michigan, where he serves as director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory.

"When you perform multiple tasks that each require some of the same channels of processing, conflicts will arise between the tasks, and you're going to have to pick and choose which task you're going to focus on and devote a channel of processing to it," explains Meyer, one of the country's leading experts on multitasking.

Meyer has been at the forefront of research for several decades on how the brain processes information and copes with multitasking. He has investigated the brain's speed, accuracy and memory in information processing while working with psychologist David Kieras for the Office of Naval Research. A study Meyer co-wrote on the limitations of multitasking ("Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching") went viral in 2001, setting off the first awareness of the counterproductivity of simultaneous tasks.

Meyer's work has documented that humans have distinct bandwidth challenges, which makes multitasking problematic. It turns out the brain's ability to process information is limited in a variety of ways—from processing channels to limits on data volume, velocity and working memory—that stymie true, simultaneous activity. Multitasking multiplies only frustration.

MENTAL BROWNOUTS

Counter to conventional wisdom, you can't do two high-cognitive tasks at once, Meyer says. When you're on the phone and writing an e-mail at the same time, you're not doing them at the same time. You're actually switching back and forth between them, since there's only one neural channel through which language flows. In that switching there's a cost: stress, as your brain neurons try to get themselves around the new task or where you were on the primary task each time you switch.

"If you have a complicated task, it requires all your attention, and if you're trying to spread your attention over multiple tasks, it's not going to work," he says.

That's heresy in a time-urgent world with the attention span of a macaque on crack. Meyer admits that multitasking is not only getting more prevalent, but it's also "very often highly inefficient and can be dangerous to your health."

Multitasking kicks thoughts down from the top floors to rote mode, where you don't have full attention on what you're doing, triggering mistakes and surface understanding. You wind up on autopilot in a retatiatory pattern of acting before you think. 

Even the most adept multitasker will "crash and burn" trying to resolve simultaneous conflicting demands, Meyer says. That means you could wind up sending the wrong e-mail; blow an account; have a brownout in which too much access to the cerebral grid shuts down critical thinking; or worse, find yourself in a truly hazardous situation, such as driving while using a cell phone.

Click for Top De-Stress Weapon 

"When you're driving, you have to use the language channel to talk, read signs, plan your next move. If you're trying to have a cell phone conversation while you're doing that, either the phone conversation will suffer or the driving," Meyer says. He points to the growing number of auto accidents caused by people sending texts from behind the wheel.

SIMULTANEOUS INATTENTION

The conflicts triggered by incessant multitasking can set off chronic stress and slow you down, shredding productivity. In fact, trying to complete two or more tasks at once can take 40 percent more time or longer, depending on the complexity of the task, Meyer says.

Performance isn't the only thing that suffers when brains are overwhelmed by multiple tasking. Creativity and innovation don't come from people who are multitasking. "You ought to be setting aside large chunks of time where you just think," Meyer says. "Einstein was not multitasking when he was dreaming up the special and general theories of relativity."

The good news is that there is hope for the attention-span-challenged, in the form of self-regulation through better time management and scheduling. "If you're disciplined enough, you can map out the usage of your time in a way that minimizes your exposure to interruptions," Meyer explains.

To improve attention and productivity, you have to shift the idea of  multitasking from simultaneous to alternating tasks. You do one task for a while, then another task. Unless you prefer the mistakes, meltdowns, and overwhelm of trying to do what your brain can't.  

If you'd like to get multitasking, interruptions, and information overload under control for your team or office, visit our time management or information management pages, or click the button below for details on our Managing Crazy Busy Workload or Email/Information Overload training programs.

Event, Meeting Planners: Click for Price, Program Details

Tags: email overload, increasing productivity, stress and multitasking, interruptions and productivity, multitasking, information overload, work life balance, stress management

Technology Harder to Resist Than Drugs

Posted by Joe Robinson

Email overload erodes impulse control

Exhibit number one for the addictive power of technology has to be the text-walking phenomenon, in which pedestrians glued to their screens walk off curbs into traffic accidents, open ditches, off docks, and wind up in ER’s. The urge to text or check email is so powerful it overrides the survival instinct.

It's always amazing to see people, head down in their phones, inching across crosswalks against full-on red lights, oblivious to the fact that they are exposed to cars that could mow them down like bowling pins. 

This kind of death-wish behavior comes courtesy of an urge stronger, apparently, than the one to stay alive. Several deaths in South Korea have been attributable to video gamers ignoring all sustenance in marathon several-day sessions.

What drives this behavior? Researchers have found that technology obliterates willpower and is the hardest of all urges to resist, harder than alcohol or drugs, according to a German study of 205 adults.

Resisting Facebook, smartphones, and texting is right up there with turning down a margarita for an alcoholic. One of the reasons technology is so addictive is that it plays to one of the social animal’s most powerful needs, the need for positive reinforcement. Send an email and get one back, and you get reinforcement, but it's an ephemeral version, feeding the urge for more validation, because real validation comes from the inside, not external approval.

You can see the hold technology has when you try to engage in a conversation with someone who has a smartphone in hand. Eye contact: zero. Listening abilities: nada. You might as well be talking to a cucumber.

Technology has such a powerful hold on us, because it erodes willpower in several ways. It’s easy to indulge in all day long, the study reports, and unlike alcohol and drugs, it doesn’t have high perceived costs. Yet the damage is being done inside brains, as the constant interruptions and mail-checking erode the self-regulation equipment and drive stress and obliterate work-life balance.

Click me

The more you check email, the more you have to check it, as any smartphone user knows. You lose impulse control and the ability to regulate impulsivity. The result: It's hard to stay on task or concentrate. The urge to check or text, minus impulse control, sets off a cycle of self-interruption. It also makes it harder to regulate impulsive behavior in other areas of life beyond technology that might be prone to habits you could do without. 

When the devices are in charge of attention, the more job stress there is, since the chimes, bells, pulses, and noisemakers play to the survival instinct of “bottom-up” attention, something we are wired to have no resistance to, since that sound could be a threat to life and limb.

We all pay when technology is unbounded, in the form of shrinking attention spans, more time pressure and stress, fractured concentration, frayed relationships, and text-walkers barging into traffic.

If technology is an addiction harder to resist than drugs, it's time for an intervention. A good email overload program or information management system (see our Email Overload page) can save impulse control mechanisms, control email overload, dramatically cut job stress, and cure technology addiction. Manage the devices, instead of the other way around, and you're back in control.

When we set the terms of engagement with devices, not only does it restore willpower, the work gets done faster, with vastly improved stress management, and more attention. And we don’t go off the deep end of curbs and piers.

Tags: email overload, text walking, technology addiction, work life balance, stress management, job stress

Subscribe via E-mail

Latest Posts

Posts by category

see all

Follow Me