Looking forward to some leisure time this evening? Why not? It’s been another long day. You may not have got through your ‘to do’ list but you sorted that last minute hiccup and finalised the report in the nick of time. Home for a late supper - you settle down with your significant other and a choice pinot noir. It’s time to unwind.
Then there’s a rumbling in your pocket. Your significant other entreats ‘just leave it’. But your boss’s emailed entreaty is the more pervasive: ‘Could you just let me have your feedback on Project Abacus. Meant to ask you today but need it for an 8am in the morning. No sweat – couple of sentences will do’.
It’s not a lot to ask, is it? A couple of sentences, a few minutes, and then you can relax. And so you start typing. . .
Ninety minutes later, Blackberry back to sleep, you shake yourself out of the daze to find your partner’s gone to bed and the pinot’s down to the dregs. Another abbreviated evening. . .
The problem is not just being on-call 24/7. Information overload is infinite. Emails bank up from the cover-your-back ‘reply to all’ fanatics and - due to an obsessive fear of what you could be missing – you know you’ll wade through them all. And your only certainty is that a rash of new emails - from insomniacs, workaholics and global time differences - will greet you at 7.30 tomorrow morning.
Be afraid; be very afraid
Consider these jaw-dropping statistics¹:
- If Email was a country, its 1.4 billion users would make it the largest in the world - bigger than China, bigger than the populations of the USA and European Union combined.
- 247 billion emails are sent each day. That's one email every 0.00000035 seconds. In the time it takes you to read this sentence, some 20 million emails entered cyberspace.
- Every second, the world's email users produce messages equivalent in size to over 16,000 copies of the Complete Works of Shakespeare (assuming a 30KB average email size)
- And if you react to this cyber-deluge in the same way you do to the millions of TV channels -ie you think they must be mostly rubbish - you’re mostly right! Estimates put spam at some 70% of the total.
If you jam all that information into your poor overloaded brain, can you be effective – or merely efficient? According to time leverage expert, Tim Ferriss, you’re likely to ‘doing more to feel productive, while actually accomplishing less’².
The University of California, moreover, finds that workers take on average 25 minutes to resume their original task after email or telephone interruptions. And the BBC reports University of London research showing that phone and email traffic hits a worker’s IQ harder than smoking dope.
Yes but . . .
Knowledge overload is widely acknowledged to be a universal problem. A huge R&D investment is currently dedicated to finding e-solutions to this scourge on productivity, IQ and mental health.³
But while we await this next generation of software tools, what can we do to ease the burden?
Here’s a classically absurd case of communication technology mis-use. A few years ago, when technology was less portable, at the end of the day, I went back to my office to find an email waiting. This told me the candidate I’d been due to interview at 9am that morning was waiting for me at reception. The reception in question was in the office I had just come from – 40 miles away. The appropriate strategy would have been to pick up the internal telephone or mobile or give me a face to face message. But no, an email was sent from one office to another, to announce a visitor arrival, 40 miles away, eight hours too late.
In this case, common sense had failed. But, now look at your own inbox and ask yourself: ‘Which of these messages are suited to email? Which would be better delivered by telephone, in-person exchange or intranet posting?
Line managers, don’t wait for the IT department to issue guidelines or instigate change in collective behaviour by establishing departmental norms. Issue your own ground rules on the preferred communication channels for different types of information. And consider an email curfew between 10pm and 7am or email free periods during the day, say 2-4pm. And walk the talk, please!
In the meantime the rest of us can vote with our feet. Simply email back but politely point out: ‘Next time could you speak to me directly about this’.
Changing Mindsets – part 2
But first, expectations need to be managed. Ask yourself whether you have a healthy, sensible relationship with email. Did you experience a twinge of recognition when you read the opening story of this article? Do you regularly respond to the electronic in preference to the physical? ('Sorry just hold on while I see who this is from’). Are you stressed by the fear of not being able to process information as fast as it comes in, or satisfying the instant response expectation of your email compatriots?
Positive answers to one or more of these questions suggest that you could be in the grip of an addiction. It’s not been re-christened the CrackBerry for nothing. Like any addiction the first step is acknowledgement. And then you can take action to get back in control.
- Control interruption. Turn off auto-notifiers. Process email in batches – twice a day works for most people
- Don’t respond too quickly. You set unrealistic expectations and it turns into an unsatisfactory conversation.
- Create systems for using inbox and folders. Inbox is for collection, not storage. Incoming messages should be deleted, actioned or filed
- Not every email is urgent. Use filters to sort and prioritise incoming email. Eg internal newsletters could be sent straight to a folder that‘s read twice a week
- Use the tools (like filters, tags, folders) you already have. And if you can’t, learn
- Use bridging emails to avoid procrastination. Set up auto-responders to acknowledge and advise your response time
- Make full use of subject headers. Use them to give a clear indication of content, ‘Internal Audit comment on Abacus May 2010’
- Keep your message brief - five sentences or less is a good maxim. Avoid open-ended or double questions, What about the issue with Project Abacus and can we consider getting the finance team involved. Propose the way forward rather than asking questions.
- Use attachments sensibly. Heed the 5 sentences maxim above. But also use common sense when considering pasting attachment data into the body of email
- Beware of over-using reply-all, cc and confirm-receipt. Is it really necessary to copy in your line manager – just for the visibility?
- Never, ever use cc among groups who don’t know one another’s email address. When in doubt, default to bcc (blind copied).
Back to the future
Working in an office 20 years ago? You will remember a workplace without email - a world of dictation machines, short-hand typists, telexes, long-winded memos and back-to-back telephone calls. In those days. ‘working at home’ meant lugging huge briefcases full of files. The world was NOT a better place without email. But it is time to tame the beast. - to learn to use the tools we already have, to exploit the benefits and unlock the value of the e-communication age. And simply take back in control.
This article was written by Carol McLachlan for CareersinAudit.com.
¹ Statistics courtesy of communications experts Image 7 Group. Full source information
² Tim Ferris – ‘The 4-Hour Workweek’
³If you’d like to read more about what’s in the pipeline, check out Paul Hemp’s article Death by Information Overload in the Harvard Business Review
4 www.five.sentenc.es advocates a personal policy that all email responses regardless of recipient or subject will be five sentences or less