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Email Overload – Where the CEO of Xerox and I Disagree

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.

I’m still not convinced Inbox Zero is necessary

My [intlink id=”inboxzero” type=”post”]previous Inbox Zero post[/intlink] has generated a lot of disagreement and controversy. I can’t say I didn’t expect it. I’m really torn. Part of me certainly agrees that if you work in a culture where everything of value happens via email and no one is willing to talk face-to-face or by phone, then email may be the only way you can work. But I just don’t believe that you have to be a victim of such a culture.

Email is not just paper mail put online. People use it quite differently. Email is fundamentally different from prior forms of communication in that it comes at virtually no cost to the sender. The size of your inbox is not under your control. It is under the control of those who want to send you stuff. Back when written letters required effort, addressing, stamps, and delays, people did not use them to pass off work, delegate things they could do more easily themselves, and so on.

By removing all barriers to sending, email has made all of us recipients of whatever drivel anyone wants to send. Given the slowness of the medium (even very fast typists can’t type nearly as fast as they can talk) and the poor use of it by most senders, my observation is that it fails to make us more productive in many cases; time spent working towards Inbox Zero increases our activity and feelings of accomplishment while actually reducing measurable results. (The exception to this is when email is used to communicate reference information, shared documents, etc.)

A Couple Of Tips That Help

Am I advocating ignoring messages in your inbox? I guess not. But I am advocating adding back barriers to having people send you email in the first place. Don’t respond immediately. Ask people to come talk in person if they have anything of substance to discuss.  Use short, almost  useless answers (or don’t answer!) for messages that should never have been sent in the first place.

Sorting your inbox by subject or sender can also help you quickly identify the messages you want to respond to, and keep your brain on one topic long enough to make some progress, but it’s only a partial solution, since you are still at the mercy of other people’s subject lines and time-wasting messages. (And besides, Gmail won’t let you sort by sender, only by it’s idea of what a conversation is.)

Challenge Me With Data

Want to challenge me? Log your email for a week. Write down (or put in a spreadsheet) each message that hits your inbox, whether it really required your attention or not, and what job outcome would have been affected had you ignored it. Also note how much total time you spent on email. Then give me a call and we’ll examine the log message by message, and decide how useful your email is. Cries of “I just HAVE to do it all” won’t convince me, but data will. (And though I’m willing to change my mind, I’m going to bet that no one reading this is actually willing to do the experiment for fear of having data that contradicts the justification for their email addiction.)

But saying “I need to process all my email every day” does not regain the time you’re wasting on email, nor does it make you more productive, nor does it change the fact  that email buffets your attention and uses up brain power that then can’t be used for anything else. (See the book “The Power of Full Engagement” for a discussion of how our attention and willpower is limited, and gets used up by activities that require thought, regardless of whether those are the “right” activities or not.)  Email is a communication tool, nothing more. Like any tool, its use should be measured in how much more work it helps you do.

Email is Still an Incredible Time Suck

The fact remains that an hour of email triage a day is six work-weeks a year. That’s an awful lot of time to devote to email unless you can make a convincing case that a month and a half’s worth of your results wouldn’t have been possible without doing it over email.

Personally,  I like saving my brainpower for the things I care about. Not everyone has the same priorities. But as I get older and find I have less energy to spend on trivia, email stands out as the number one drain of my energy that’s high on dopamine punch, but low on measurable results.

Inbox Zero and the Critical Mistake That Saps Productivity

Everyone loves the concept of “Inbox Zero.” The idea is easy: make it a priority to empty your email inbox every day. It feels great. I agree that it feels great. One member of the Get-it-Done Guy community said it’s how he knows he has control over his email.

I respectfully disagree that inbox zero means you have control over your email. You don’t control the content, the order, or the volume of email that arrives. Inbox Zero is basically a reactive strategy—it says that your inbox is so high priority that you should attend to everything in it every day. Since you don’t control the content, that means shifting your brain through several topics just to scan your inbox in a single session. The order you have to think about those topics is determined by the order messages arrive, not by the importance or relevance of the topic to you. Brains don’t do well with rapid, random context switching. You’re using up brainpower just in the process of triaging the whole inbox. This isn’t just a philosophical issues. In “The Power of Full Engagement” by Tony Schwartz cites research that we only have a certain amount of mental capacity between each sleep cycle. Your brain doesn’t care what you use it on. You can use it up triaging your inbox just as easily as you can use it actually doing good, high-quality work. When I’ve paid close attention, I’ve noticed that email saps my actual productivity.

The amount of your email is determined by others, and the amount of time it takes to scan your inbox is proportional to the amount of email they send. Unless you’re in a completely reactive job and the only people who email you are people whose agenda aligns with yours, taking your time to sort through their email can waste a lot of time. I get about 100 emails a day. If I spent as much as 30 seconds on each one, that would take up the equivalent of a month and a half a year. There’s simply no way that’s a productive use of time in aggregate.

I believe that an empty inbox just means you’ve ceded control of your thinking and priorities to everyone who emails you. They control the volume, order, and substance of your attention for the time you’re processing your email. It *feels good* to have an empty inbox, but it also feels good to gorge on Oreo ice cream cake. That doesn’t mean that Oreo ice cream cake is good for you, only that it feels good. Inbox Zero has the extra sugary bonus that since *some* email is an essential part of our job, it’s easy to believe (with no evidence at all) that therefore it’s useful to spend some time on *all* email.

Rather than striving for inbox zero, I advocate learning to identify the truly relevant emails very, very quickly, with an absolute minimum of cognitive load or context switching.

Hint: consider the concept of semantic priming. When you consider a topic (or even just a word), your brain unconsciously brings to mind associated concepts. I’m assuming that this is part of what happens to drain the mental energy that email drains. How would you use semantic priming to your benefit while processing your inbox?

Hint #2: Consider that humans find it easier to choose between 2 things than 3, and that the framing of a choice–e.g. the choice to read/respond to an email versus to ignore it–will dramatically change the amount of mental energy needed to process that email.

Hint #3: Consider the behavior of people who send mail. Contrast their pre-email behavior (stamps, envelopes, etc.) and post-email. What was different? Why? What implications does this have for responding to senders?