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Emails and the illusion of productivity

We have to ask ourselves an important question: who is in charge of our day, us or our email? says internet psychologist Graham Jones. He looks at how email creates the illusion of productivity and suggests a way to deal with the problem

For most people nowadays not only is email central to their working activities but various studies have shown that for most office-based people, it is now using up three hours of the working day.

There is another problem with email – a psychological one called ‘attention shift’. When your brain has to focus on one activity and then re-focus on another it takes time for your mental processes to get back in gear. So, when you read one email on a topic, deal with it and then move on to another email on another topic your brain goes “hang on a minute, what’s this about, let me catch up”. That process takes 30 seconds or more. Each time you switch from one email to the next, you can add a further 30 seconds of time “doing nothing” waiting for your brain to catch up. Given that we each receive hundreds of emails per day, there’s at least another hour of our time taken away from productive work.

And it gets worse. It appears that when you finish one task – such as emailing – and then start a new task, like writing that report you are working on – it takes about 15 minutes for your brain to refocus. That means that in total email is taking up about half of everyone’s working day in actual time doing it and the psychological down time due to attention shift.

The illusion of productivity

Yet when we are using email we are under its spell. It makes us think we are working, when we are not. Email is an illusion. It suggests we are being productive because we can “tick things off”; we can see our inbox “unread” count going down, for instance, and that makes us think we have achieved something. But have we?

This all came to light recently when I installed an email tracking system. I was testing Yesware which allows you to track emails, attachments and to schedule emails and get reminders if things haven’t been dealt with. It is an interesting and useful system.

However, what struck me was the number of times people opened each individual email. On average in the past week the people who have received emails from me have opened each email five times. One person opened the same email 14 times within one day. Why?

Productivity experts will tell us, I am sure, that we are more productive when we touch something the minimum number of times required. A principle of time management is that you only pick up something once to either deal with it, ditch it or delegate it. But if you are opening an email between five and 14 times in a single day, that smacks of inefficiency.

Yet this is typical. We get a new email, we take a look and then we go back to doing some work. Then the email is in our subconscious and we think about it so we go back to the email once again and have a think. Then we realise we can’t deal with the email there and then, so we go back to working. After a while we stop working go back to our emails and see that email again. That’s three times we have looked at it and achieved nothing….! What a waste of time.

Deal with it

Here’s a solution. Firstly, switch off all email alerts – let your email program work away in the background collecting your emails quietly. Then, allocate times of the day that will be your email time. The number of time slots you need will depend on various factors – but several studies show you can be efficient with email even with one time slot per day.

Once you are in your ‘email’, read each email and decide whether the email is relevant or not. If it is irrelevant, dump it. That leaves you with emails that are relevant. Can it be answered within two minutes? If it can, answer it. That will deal with lots of messages, leaving you with a handful that is going to take a longer time. With those, add each email to your calendar – setting an appointment to deal with them.

In this way you cut down the amount of time you spend on emailing and it also means the maximum number of times you open each message is now only two.

We have to ask ourselves an important question: who is in charge of our day, us or our email?

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