What Wrong With Email Part 3: We Check, But We Don’t Process

Workers check their email a lot, but they don’t necessarily do anything with the messages when they check them. They scan the inbox for anything that’s immediately relevant and then try to go back to what they were doing. The diversion might last only a few seconds, or it could take a few minutes, and it’s highly unproductive for a number of reasons.

For starters, it causes us to repeat work. Second, it takes us time to reorient ourselves to the task we were doing before we checked email. Third, it over results in other distractions or diversions. In one study, people took on average a little more than a minute to resume work after checking email (Jackson 2001). They were interrupted by email checks on average 96 times per day resulting in about an hour and a half of lost time spent reorienting.

While Jackson’s work is a little old, newer studies confirm the same kinds of findings. Renaud and colleagues (2006), for instance, found that people switch between email and non-email apps very often, and that typically they are spending less than a minute in email at any one stretch. More than 56 percent of his research participants lasted less than 15 seconds, and only 3.7 percent lasted more than 5 minutes. That’s really alarming.

Here’s an example that might be all too familiar: You’re working on a task. You check email to make sure nothing urgent has landed in your inbox. While checking, you scan a few unimportant emails. It takes 20 seconds. You go back to what you were doing. When you finish your task, you return to email to take care of the messages you scanned earlier. But you have no recollection of what they were about and have to scan them again from scratch. That means your first 20-second check was entirely wasteful. It accomplished nothing, other than to ease your nerves that nothing urgent had happened. You now have to repeat the work you did the first time you scanned the messages.

It probably would have been more worth your while to read the messages and:

  • delete them if they were not important,
  • file them away if they were important but required no action,
  • respond to them if they require nothing more than a quick reply, or
  • flag them for follow-up later if you need more time or information before answering.

Doing any of those things is called processing email. Few people understand the difference between “processing” and “checking” email. Checking email repeatedly, even for a few seconds, adds up to a lot of wasted time and effort. It also takes us added unproductive time to reorient ourselves back to the task at hand.


Jackson, T., R. Dawson, & D. Wilson. (2001) Case study: Evaluating the use of an electronic messaging system in business. Proc. Conf. Empirical Assessment Software Engrg. ACM, New York, 53–56.

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 Michael Coghlan, CC.


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