As you probably know, I’ve launched my You Are Not Your Inbox, so I’m revisiting some of my old thoughts about Email Overload.

Tim Sanders wrote a blog entry that references a Business Week article (“What’s So Bad about Information Overload?”) on information overload I commented on last week. The writer suggests that information overload might be good. There might be some valuable information, and besides, young people can handle it just fine.

Sure. In what universe? My Get-it-Done Guy podcast email and people’s reaction to my
What is Email Costing You Assessment, suggest many people of us feel our life force being regularly sucked from our bodies by information overload. It makes us jump from topic to topic. It interrupts us when we need to concentrate. And then we feel guilty that we still can’t keep up. Gee, that sounds like a resourceful emotional state for reaching our goals.

Yes, we’re getting more info. Yes, some of it’s useful. But that’s not the point! We need to ask: is it useful enough? Are the benefits—financial, social, or emotional—worth the cost?

For Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy (mentioned in the article), the answer is Yes. In email, they say things they would never say otherwise. Like that comment about the chocolate mousse, telephone pole, and garter belt. Who would ever say that out loud?

Of course, an anonymous suggestion box would fill the same function. Even better, the tipster could actually include the original garter belt. But apparently, those emails are amazing enough that Anne devotes a lot of time to her email. Since she’s gotten great results at Xerox, for her, the benefits might be worth the cost. (Assuming, of course, that her success is because of email, rather than in spite of it. Maybe a weekly suggestion box would be just as good.)

If you’re top dog, no one pays attention to how you use your time as long as you produce business results. The rest of us aren’t so lucky. Our pointy-haired boss gives us specific goals, and email can suck up a lot of time without moving us towards our real goals. That “Top 10 Reasons Working Here Sucks” email will only help you reach your goal if that goal is a new job at your major competitor’s firm.

When you’re deciding how much time to spend with your inbox, think long and hard about the benefits you’re getting. After all, there’s lots you could be doing with that time. Ask yourself if there is any other way to get those same benefits? If you hired a $50/hour assistant to read and answer your email every day, what would you tell him/her to process versus ignore? Are you following those same guidelines?

Being perfect in every way, I follow my own advice and am ultra careful with my email habits. Even so, I often get sucked in for up to 30 extra minutes a day. Since I’m perfect, that must be the perfect amount of time to waste. But there’s still a nagging feeling: that comes out to three weeks per year. If I’m going to spend three weeks a year blathering mindlessly, I’d rather do it wearing a bathing suit on a sunny Caribbean beach than sitting hunched over my computer in my basement office, looking like one of the Mole People. At least on the beach, I might get a tan.

So don’t take my word for it. Don’t take Tim Sanders’s word for it. And don’t take Business Week’s word for it. Your email time is productive to the extent it helps you get what you want out of life. Hold it to a high standard and if it isn’t performing, drop it from your life faster than that stalker you accidentally dated in college. With email, only you can take control; there’s no way to get a restraining order.

Email Overload – Where the CEO of Xerox and …

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