With email, most people receive more than they send (Renaud, 2006). Take a minute to wrap your head around that fact, and think about whether it’s true for you.
Now consider that new email messages are often obligations that carry a cost (as I noted in Part 1 of this series on email and productivity). The recipient usually pays the cost. So the fact that most people get more email than they send leaves them in a financial hole.
Email is just a tool. A lot of the problems with email have to do with how we use the tool, rather than the tool itself. I’m not suggesting anyone send more email to make up for the imbalance of how many messages he or she receives. But I am saying that the fact that there is an imbalance might be a hint that there’s some other root cause to blame, something to do with us.
Could it be that we’re using the wrong tool?
Is Email the Wrong Tool for What We Do With It?
A good deal of work-related emails that people receive are tasks. Email, it will come as no surprise, is not a very good tool for delegating and managing tasks. When it’s used for that purpose, workers find email become a “burden” (Mark 2012).
Email is the wrong tool for the job we’re trying to make it do. The rise in popularity of work-management software and project-management software, apps such as Asana, Trello, and Wrike, seem to indicate that’s the case. Teams are gravitating to these tools to get out of email and put their task-related work communication somewhere else that handles it better.
In my own experience, I was part of a team that shifted from communicating tasks via email to doing it in a work-management app. Our internal email communication decreased tremendously. The benefits are numerous. We can better track our work and have increased visibility into who is doing what. Email suddenly becomes a place to talk to people outside the organization, so a natural compartmentalization happens, which I find helps increase my focus when I am dealing with email.
No Flow Control
Here’s another problem with email: It has no flow control. Most desktop and Web-based email programs check for new mail constantly. Some allow you to customize how frequently they check, but I’ve never heard of anyone making a desktop email app check for new messages less frequently. Mobile devices are an exception to this rule, where it’s not uncommon to dial down how often they check for new mail to save battery power and data costs. Still, we have new messages coming at us at all times with very little control.
When we leave our email programs open and running in the background, we don’t get a break. Many productivity experts recommend people quit their email apps when it’s time to get hard work done that requires a lot of focus. When I talk to workers about this suggestion, they almost uniformly say they “can’t” do it.
Part of the problem is the expectation of immediacy (Mark 2012) (more on that another time). Part of it has to do with the fact that new emails are often task assignments, and we want to make sure that new information or requests coming our way aren’t going to change the task we’re doing right this second. So we begin to feel beholden to the constant flow of information, as if the world might end if we simply turned our backs on the flow and let the reservoir, our inbox, fill up a little bit.
Really and truly, though, how bad would that be?
Mark, G., Voida, S., & Cardello, A. (2012). A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons: An Empirical Study of Work Without Email Proc. of CHI’12, 555-564. Retrieved Dec. 22, 2015 from https://www.ics.uci.edu/~gmark/Home_page/Research_files/CHI%202012.pdf. doi 10.1145/2207676.2207754
Renaud, K., Ramsay, J., & Hair, M. (2006). ‘You’ve got e-mail!’… Shall I deal with it now? Electronic mail from the recipient’s perspective. International Journal of Human–Computer Interaction, 21(3), 313–332.
Image by brunogirin, CC.