Email is our Biggest Distraction

May 24, 2011

We’re all beginning to learn and accept that multitasking is indeed a myth. Changing our multitasking behavior will lead to greater productivity, but it will also take time. Email may be the right place to begin.

Dave Crenshaw, author of “The Myth of Multitasking: How ‘Doing It All’ Gets Nothing Done,” argues that the most common kind of multitasking doesn’t boost productivity—it actually slows you down. While background tasking like watching television while you work out can be fine, what he calls “switchtasking” is trying to juggle two tasks by refocusing your attention back and forth between them, and losing time and progress in the switch.

I contend email is the biggest distraction and the thing we try to multitask with the most.

In 2006 more than 6 trillion email messages were reportedly sent everyday. Last year that increased to an average of 160 messages per day per office worker. More than 88 percent of these messages were considered junk—spam, commercial newsletters or other unsolicited messages. And though filters can help reduce the junk, email still consumes way too much of our time.

Two things may help: 1) reduce the number of email messages you send and reply to, and 2) read email less frequently.

I wrote in an earlier post that email messages can easily work against you in conveying information. What may seem entirely clear to you when you write and send a message, can be totally misunderstood or misinterpreted by the receiver. This is due to limitations of the written word as well as other factors.

You can find lots of advice on the web with regard to email etiquette and advice on when and when not to use email.

Jim Gerace, who was earlier vice president of corporate communications at Verizon Wireless, issued employee guidelines on the proper use of email. I think the most important are:

  • Email should bring closure to work, not create more work.
  • Before you write an email, ask yourself if calling or visiting the recipient will bring better communication.
  • Keep emails short. Pretend that the recipient isn’t going to open the email and you need to make your point in just the subject line or the space in the preview pane.
  • If just one person needs information or clarification, don’t send it to a group.
  • Stay accountable. Sending an email doesn’t transfer responsibility.
  • Don’t send another email asking why you didn’t get an answer to the first one; call or visit the person you need information from.
  • Don’t spend more than five minutes dealing with an email. When you go over this limit, stop and make a phone call.

Timothy Ferriss, in his best-selling book “The 4-Hour Workweek,” recommends looking at email only twice a day in order to focus on the job at hand. He does the same with phone calls so he can focus on getting things done rather than constantly losing time and productivity through what Crenshaw calls switchtasking.

Ferriss ensures senders and callers all know his unavailability because he adds this to his signature on his email messages as well as his voice mail message.

Not everyone can follow this advice, but I suspect most of us probably can and should. Simply turning off the sound and pop-ups for when a new email message arrives may better enable us to stay focused on our task.

What about you? Do you measure your day by how many email messages you receive? If you made the choice to no longer be ruled by your inbox, would you be more productive?

Are Your Email Messages Working Against You?

August 13, 2009

Choosing to use email to convey information versus face-to-face interaction or a telephone call should be carefully considered. Email, of course, has many advantages over the others. The trouble is, many email messages are not entirely clear and often are misinterpreted. In fact, according to a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology ((Vol. 89(6) pp. 925-936)), nearly 40% of email messages are misunderstood! This should cause all of us to hesitate before hitting the send button.

The study further found that without the benefit of paralinguistic cues such as gesture, emphasis, and intonation, email makes it very difficult to convey emotion and tone. Using ALL CAPS, bold type, or emoticons 😉 are poor substitutes for facial expressions and tone of voice. Albert Mehrabian, professor of psychology at UCLA, posited the three basic elements of face-to-face communication are words, tone of voice, and body language. Words, according to Mehrabian, account for just 7 percent of the overall content being received, while tone of voice accounts for 38 percent and body language accounts for a whopping 55 percent! If only 7 percent of information is effectively communicated via the words themselves, then a great deal of effort should be considered in choosing which words to use and the order of them in our email communication.

Should we instead abandon email altogether? Certainly not. There are many great reasons to use email, including one-to-many distribution, the timing and speed at which information can be delivered, the inclusion of hyperlinks and attachments, and the level of detail that can be included. However, too often we assume that our audience can correctly interpret our intention behind our words. Not aligning our intention with our content can lead to greater misunderstanding.

Communication can easily break down even under the best of circumstances in face-to-face interactions. With this in mind, it is essential to put great care in writing emails so they are not misunderstood. To do this, I have several suggestions:

1) Consider your audience. What assumptions are you making regarding culture, gender, age, level of education, etc? When in doubt, provide a greater level of background information than you might otherwise. And spell out acronyms.

2) Double check the title you use in the Subject box to ensure that it accurately encapsulates the body of the message. Sometimes these titles can confuse or even contradict what is written in the message itself.

3) Before sending the email, reread your message with a dispassionate eye and from an objective point of view. Ask yourself if your words could be interpreted any way other than you intend.

4) If you are sending to a large group, first send the message as a draft to only two or three people to learn whether or not your intention and the message are entirely clear to them. Only send it on to the entire group when you have agreement.

No matter what you use email for, it is essential to keep in mind the limitations of this medium. In spite of developments in video conferencing, Skype-enabled calls, and other video-enhanced technologies, the majority of our business communications are currently conducted via written words alone. The ability to clearly communicate with these words is more important now than ever.

Mark Craemer