Email is necessary for work, right? Most people make some kind of conciliatory case that doing email is somehow a productive task, even people who deplore email. Typically, however, email is related to work, but it’s not the real core work itself. It’s not the hard work that earns the money. And according to studies, it’s worse for your productivity than Facebook.
Most people have heard that email is a problem or have experienced the problem themselves, but the more I’ve looked at the research, the more I realize it is severely underreported. Email is so much worse than we though.
Just How Bad is Email?
In a 2014 study (Mark et al.), researchers recorded the computer activity of 32 people for five full days. The study was meant to find if knowledge workers were more bored or focused on particular days of the week. But as I read it, I found the real shocking data to be entirely about email.
Take a look at this chart showing how much time workers spent in various types of programs across the hours of the day.
Between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., people spent an absurd amount of time in their Inbox/Calendar apps. Inbox/Calendar here refers to using a work email account and calendar. Notice that there’s a separate Email category. That one is for personal email. What that says to me is email is being underreported here by being split into two categories!
But wait. It gets worse.
Later in this same article, the authors break email into three categories: webmail, email, and inbox/calendar! A footnote explains, “Email refers to reading and writing email; Inbox/Cal refers to only when the Email Inbox is in the active window.”
Is it just me, or is it looney to differentiate between email being the active window and “reading” email?
When people are doing email, it does not necessarily mean they’re doing something with each email, like replying, acting on a request, filing the message for later reference, or trashing it. Doing email often means skimming and checking to see what’s in the inbox. When those emails don’t capture our full attention and we don’t act on them, we waste time by looking at them because we invariably end up looking at them again later when it is time to act on them.
In any event, email is clearly being underreported, even in academic research.
I re-crunched some of the numbers to combine all the email recordings into one. Take a look at my revised version of a table showing the average number of seconds people spend in email, on Facebook, and in productivity apps one hour before and one hour after a mid-day break:
|Before Mid-Day Break||After Mid-Day Break|
If we assume productivity apps are the programs in which we get the real, hard, paying work done, it’s clear from these numbers that email is the main culprit dragging us away from them. Look at how little time people spend on Facebook comparatively!
How Email Hurts Productivity
I get that there are some real work tasks we can’t get done unless we communicate with other people, and that email is a more convenient form of communication than phone or face-to-face discussions. Email can be more concise (though it isn’t always). You have a record of what was said. You can review the details at any time. But let’s not pretend that email lives up to those ideals.
The major problem with email is that it interrupts us.
I spoke recently with Robby Macdonell, vice president of product development at RescueTime, a time-management app that tracks how much time people spend in various applications while they work. I asked him pointblank why email is unproductive.
“If you think about how most email programs work,” he said, “and in a larger sense how most communications programs work, they’re pinging you with notifications all the time. It’s getting increasingly rare that you’re getting more than a few minutes of work done before you’re being pulled over into some other activity. Even if you’re not being completely pulled over to it, your attention is being pulled over to it, away from what you were trying to focus on.”
He added that most knowledge workers “gloss over the fact that email is the activity that’s going to pull you away from that creative thought repeatedly throughout the day.” When work relies on having long periods of uninterrupted focus, email is the Person from Porlock.
Another problem is people put too much importance onto email. That’s why it becomes a constant interruption, a yanked leash around the neck. People stop themselves from getting deep into their own work because they continually check email to see if any “important” messages have arrived.
What You Can Do
There is a way to run an experiment on yourself to see if you’re just as guilty as everyone else of fettering away time in email applications. Install RescueTime and let it track your behavior.
RescueTime records how many minutes you spend in various applications when you’re on your computer and mobile devices and creates reports that tells you how you spend your time.
RescueTime runs invisibly and quietly in the background, so it never interrupts you. You can leave it running for weeks, months, or years and simply check in on your reports after a good deal of time as passed so that you get real, objective, and long-term data about your habits.
When you use RescueTime, you only get to see your own data, not the collective data of all users (which would be totally, amazingly cool).
Robby Macdonell, the RescueTime VP whom I mentioned earlier, told me a lot of people are afraid to look at their data because they’re worried about how much time they waste in Facebook not being productive. When they do look at their data, they’re usually surprised that Facebook isn’t nearly as much of a time-waster as email is. Time spent on Facebook, Macdonell said, is small compared with the enormous swathes of time people waste in email.
It’s easy to feel bad about wasting time on Facebook because unless you’re a social media manager, Facebook very clearly has no productivity purpose. It’s cut and dry. Email is trickier. We feel there are important issues to address coming from email, or we worry that someone will email us with a priority that’s more important than the task we should be doing right now. We get sucked into email out of fear that something more important will happen and if we’re not checking email constantly, we might miss it. That worry is hard to let go, but when you put it into words, it is kind of ridiculous and should be preventable.
4 Steps to Breaking Free of Email
You can get out of email and back to the real, hard work. It takes little more than four steps.
- Install RescueTime to get an accurate picture of how much time you spend in email each day and what times of day are the worst.
- After at least two weeks, choose a date at random and look at your hourly report. I’ll show two examples below. In the first one, email or “communication” is spread out throughout the day. That’s a problem. In the second image, look how concentrated communication is in the later part of the day, meaning email was not an interruption while doing other work earlier. In your own reports, look for patterns in terms of times of day when you could be more productive if only you were not getting sucked into email. The goal is not to reduce the number of hours you spend in email necessarily. The goal is to make email use less spread out and more concentrated.
- During the times of day you identify as when you want to not check email, close your email apps and block webmail by installing a distraction-free tool like StayFocusd (free). If you have a RescueTime Premium account, you can use its tools to block yourself from accessing email.
- If you’re paranoid that an urgent and important message will arrive while you are trying to work, set up some kind of VIP alert system, which you already have if you use iOS. If you don’t use iOS or you want one that has more options and customizations, try AwayFind. In either case, you can get an alert, such as a push notification on your phone or even a text message, when a VIP emails you. That means you can check the email, and if it’s not urgent, you can close it and go back to what you were doing.
Another trick I personally use is to delay opening my email apps once I start working. I usually skim through work email first thing in the morning on my phone, just to check for anything truly urgent. The reason I use the phone is because I find it easier to shut off than my laptop or desktop computer if there isn’t anything that requires my immediate attention. If I see an email that’s important but not urgent, I might add a star. If it’s truly urgent, I reply right from the phone. But because I don’t like reading or writing on the phone, I’m not tempted to get sucked into other emails that aren’t really urgent.
These little tricks that add up to big gains to keep you out of email and help you get back to the work that matters.
Mark, G., Iqbal, S., Czerwinski, M., & Johns, P. (2014). Bored Mondays and focused afternoons. Proceedings Of The 32Nd Annual ACM Conference On Human Factors In Computing Systems – CHI ’14.
Macdonell, Robby (2015). Private communication.