Email is distracting us from doing the hard work that we’re being paid to do. Let’s review some of the numbers.
- Individuals estimate that they check email once every hour, but data from research show it’s nearly once every 5 minutes (Renaud, Ramsay, & Hair, 2006).
- In an average 9.4-hour workday, workers spent 30 percent of their time on email (Barley, Myerson, & Grodel, 2011).
- The average employee reacts to an email notification within 1 minute 44 seconds (Jackson, Dawson, & Wilson, 2001a).
- After reading, processing, or responding to an email, workers in one study took on average 64 seconds to resume work (Jackson, Dawson, & Wilson, 2001b);
- that’s how long it took to resume work at large, but it was more like 25 minutes to resume the specific task that the employee was doing prior to the email interruption.
- Based on the numbers in point no. 4, workers are interrupted by email 96 times in an 8-hour day.
I could go on, but it’s more important to dig into the specifics of the numbers.
First, look at the publication dates for the studies I’ve cited. A few of these studies, particularly those lead by Jackson, are frequently cited by other researchers and reporters. They were published in 2001. Long before a study is published, the research is carried out, numbers collected and analyzed, and finally a report written and submitted for publication. It can be years between the time the data are collected and the publish date. Subjects in the studies by Jackson et. al, used Microsoft Outlook ’97 and Outlook 2000, which, if you’ve forgotten how different those programs are from today’s email, I highly encourage you to look at this image.
So the data are very old. The information was gathered during an era when email programs were fairly new in the office and virtually unrecognizable from what they are today. Email itself was still a novelty for many in 1999 and 2000.
Maybe you noticed that one of the studies I cited is from 2011. Again, that’s the publish date. The data used in that study were collected between October 2001 and March 2002.
It’s clear that the 2006 study (from point no. 1) is outdated, too, but it has an even worse problem: Only six subjects participated in that study. Think for a moment about the different results you might get if you were to survey six people who worked in, say, a real estate office in 2006 versus six people who were developers at Facebook at the same time. Six people cannot create an accurate representation of all knowledge workers. The 2006 paper even has a mention about how among the six subjects, one was a complete anomaly:
“one person (User 3) was somewhat different. For example, Users 3 and 4 both used e-mail for around 20% of the time they were tracked. However, User 3 switched far less often (19 times compared with 41). This was because User 3 spent more time on both e-mail and other applications: 23.8% of this user’s non-e-mail sessions and 7.6% of e-mail sessions were longer than 5 min. Both these percentages are around twice the average. It would seem that this user was unusual in engaging in a more batch-orientated approach compared with the others, who seemed to be trying to parallel process” (Renaud, Ramsay, & Hair, 2006).
I’m not saying that email statistics aren’t shocking. I’m not saying that email isn’t a problem because it is. Email is worse than Facebook for productivity. We know it is because we have many pieces of research that confirm the same general trend. But not all the numbers from all the reports are extreme.
Numbers that aren’t shocking don’t get nearly the same traction as numbers that are. The result is that the shocking numbers are over reported, even if they are not wonderfully supported.
In other words, the extent to which email is interruptive may be blown out of proportion.
Looking at numbers to tell a story can be highly misleading if those numbers aren’t reliable. Reporters or writers who are trying to attract attention are prone to pull and cite newsworthy-looking data without vetting the sources well.
Barley, S., Myerson, D., & Grodel, S. (2011) E-mail as a source and symbol of stress. Organization Science 22 (4): 887–906. Retrieved Jan. 22, 2016.
Jackson, T., Dawson, R., Wilson, D. (2001a). The cost of email interruption. Journal of Systems and Information Technology, 5 (1), 81-92.
Jackson, T., Dawson, R., & Wilson, D. (2001b). Case study: Evaluating the use of an electronic messaging system in business. Proc. Conf. Empirical Assessment Software Engineering: 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 Jason Devaun, CC.