Remember when email was new and novel, and we thought it would make life so much easier? It did improve communication on some levels, who remembers fax machines and the joy of picking up and sorting out all those pages of curly paper?
But now, we wade through hundreds of emails in our inbox each day, and many of us feel we have to deal with email as it comes in. This takes our focus off work and makes it difficult to concentrate on tasks, particularly if we are looking to be distracted from a less than excited task
So why is email such a productivity killer?
The big issue with email is that we feel that we have to at least read if not respond to every email immediately, regardless of what the sender may expect. This means that we never stay fully focused on any one task because we're often waiting for more emails. When emails do come, we stop our work, focus on the email, deal with the content it contains, and maybe craft a response. Then we go back to work, but it can take time to switch our brains back and forth between email and our previous task.
Ever heard of attention residue? That's a phrase coined by Sophie Leroy after two experiments showed people's productivity dropped when they moved back and forth between tasks, rather than focusing on one at a time. It refers to the tendency to have thoughts about a previous task in your head even as you move to another task, which makes it more difficult to complete the new task.
How can I avoid email overwhelm?
Not everything that needs to be said should be communicated through email. Issues that require back and forth could be dealt with the old school way - either in person or through the phone. Likewise with topics that require an immediate response. Documents that are being reviewed by multiple people should be done through Google Drive, Dropbox or another format. This ensures everyone sees the most recent version of the document each time they open it, and saves trawling through a dozen emails trying to find that one point made earlier today, that you just can’t remember.
Why not try to set aside dedicated email time during the day—say once in the morning and once in the afternoon—to deal with emails, rather than checking on an ongoing basis. If that's not practical, maybe check every couple of hours, or only between tasks. This limits attention residue and encourages you to focus on the task at hand.
And why not turn off notifications? Either mobile or computer, if there’s no little ding to tell you something exciting and worthy of your attention has been delivered, you may find you just aren’t drawn to those emails!
Have email overwhelm? Spend a week reading every single email you receive (bear with me here!) especially all the subscriptions you’ve signed up for. Are they really any benefit to you? Are they interesting and relevant? Do you even remember signing up for them? GDPR means that unsubscribing to emails should be easy – do it! There’s no need to login to 58 emails every morning & feel your heart sink, particularly when 46 of them are completely irrelevant.