How best to counter an overwhelming email culture to spur productivity
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How best to counter an overwhelming email culture to spur productivity

How best to counter an overwhelming email culture to spur productivity

An excessive email culture is leading to a loss in productivity. Here’s how you can deal with it


A common problem that plagues professionals these days is an overflowing inbox with emails.

And so it was with two dear friends my wife and I were having dinner with recently. They spoke about how the culture of their firm necessitates that it conducts its business over email.

They’re inundated with email messages with long threads, in which everyone seems to copy everyone else, while adding very little substance to the discourse. Sound familiar?

Over the years there have been numerous publications on the hidden cost to an organisation due to an overzealous email culture. One such study was reported in Harvard Business Review by Tom Cochran, then CTO of Atlantic Media.

He measured that in a single week, he received 511 email messages and sent 284. This averaged to around 160 emails per day over a five-day week. Assuming he only spent 30 seconds per message on average, this accumulated to an hour and a half per day dedicated to moving information around like a sorting machine.

Delving deeper he found that Atlantic Media was spending well over a million dollars a year to pay people to process emails.

If your organisation insists on maintaining a heavy email culture despite the impact on the bottomline, then here are a few things you can do personally to maintain your sanity.

Decide when you’ll check email. For me, this tends to be first thing in the morning. Then after lunch. Followed by towards the close of the day.

The rest of the time email remains off. If it’s urgent, someone will call me.

Now I appreciate that if you’re working on a tight deadline, with a tender submission due within 24-48 hours, then of course this isn’t possible, and I don’t follow this practice either.

However, for the regular working day, you can implement this or another routine. Avoid randomly checking for new email messages when you are between tasks. It will only distract you from performing real work.

Remember your real value-adding work might be along the lines of: creating a solution for a customer, preparing a pitch document, doing business development, building a project delivery programme or writing a funding paper.

When you do focus on email, sift through them in 15, 20 or 30-minute cycles. Set a timer and when it goes off, stop. It’ll surprise you how many emails you can process when there is a countdown timer ticking away. I tend to operate in this way two or three times a day.

If you simply can’t do it this way, then at the very least only check your emails at the start of every hour.

Avoid keeping your to-do list on your email application, otherwise you’ll get sucked into a vortex of incoming messages. Use an application like OneNote or Evernote where you allow yourself clear space to process the thoughts and tasks for the day.

When the message of an email is highly emotive, in other words it caused a stir or you feel angered by it, then remember that you don’t have to respond immediately. Give yourself time to respond in a more pragmatic and measured manner. You’ll be surprised by how much more relaxed you feel when you avoid heated unproductive email exchanges.

Emails can even cause physical stress. One study reported that participants who went without emails for just one week, found that their heart rate variability changed as they became significantly less stressed. In addition, the participants interacted more with others, spent longer working on tasks, multitasked less, and were a lot more focused.

Rehan Khan is a principal consultant for BT and a writer of historical fiction

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