Today has been a day full of travel for me so I’ve had the time to listen to a few different podcasts which have given me some ideas for blog posts – fantastic! The first concept which really struck me and which I hadn’t thought much of in the past was the fact that the activity of sending emails may not be as productive as we think it is. A lot of people complain about their lack of availability due to the mass of emails they feel the need to filter through and respond to; however, does reading and sending emails really count as a constructive task? Maybe not.

Productivity is the output per input of resource. Similarly, labour productivity is the output per worker. I’m interesting in exploring the link between sending, checking or reading emails and labour productivity. The truth is, no one has ever become famous or successful solely due to their impeccable style of dealing with their email inbox (if you know of any such person, I would absolutely love to know more).

Firstly, it seems as though we sometimes turn to our emails when we want to avoid doing other, important pieces of work. For example, let’s say that I need to carry out some research for a project but I’m not very keen or enthusiastic about the whole thing. I may use my overflowing inbox as an excuse to delay this activity and turn my attention away from the more crucial task at hand. So, although it may feel like I’m being productive by checking my emails, I’m really just avoiding a more productive activity and I’m therefore being less productive than I could have been.

Additionally, here are some facts about emails in the workplace: 23% of the average employee’s workday is filled with the task of dealing with emails. Furthermore, the average employee checks their email about 36 times an hour! That’s more than once every 2 minutes – it seems as though it’s becoming an addiction which requires intervention. It’s such a big distraction that it does not allow us to be fully concentrated in our work and reach our peak levels of productivity.

Moreover, sending emails may not always be the most efficient means of communication. Perhaps we rely on our emails too heavily which leads us to ignore the fact that there are other methods of communication which could achieve a much more desirable outcome, therefore increasing productivity. As an example, imagine that I’m trying to get feedback regarding an article I’ve written. I decide to email various people who could provide some valuable comments to me so I send them the article along with a little message explaining the favour I’d like to ask. The next day, I see a flood of replies which overwhelm me because, as expected, different people are saying different things. There are so many contrasting opinions – I have no idea what to believe and how to process this feedback.

To make this whole process easier for me, I could have organised a meeting with all of the experts and had a discussion with the group as a whole. In this scenario, I would have the opportunity to ask questions face-to-face, thereby allowing me to fully understand each person’s views. Yes, sending an email is faster and much more convenient, but is the convenience worth the confusion and frustration it generates? In my opinion, nothing beats a real life conversation so we should always use this opportunity whenever possible and we should not always use email as a shortcut because it can impede our productivity and diminish our efforts.

I think that this short extract from an article on Harvard Business Review explains the inefficiency associated with emails using a good analogy:

Suppose each time you ran low on an item in your kitchen—olive oil, bananas, napkins—your instinctive response was to drop everything and race to the store. How much time would you lose? How much money would you squander on gas? What would happen to your productivity?

We all recognize the inefficiency of this approach. And yet surprisingly, we often work in ways that are equally wasteful.

The reason we keep a shopping list and try to keep supermarket trips to a minimum is that it’s easy to see the cost of driving to the store every time we crave a bag of potato chips. What is less obvious to us, however, is the cognitive price we pay each time we drop everything and switch activities to satisfy a mental craving.

That ends it for this post. I know that sending emails is important in certain situations, but maybe we should think about trying to limit the amount of time we spend with our inbox. As always, leave me your thoughts in the comments below. 🙂




9 thoughts on “Emails inhibiting productivity?

  1. I am/was notorious for my memo-like e-mails. The thing is, I found the act of writing longer messages a good way to clarify and organize my thoughts and edit and edit and edit and edit). And I really enjoyed the process of writing (hence my career “change”). Finally, I liked having getting thoughts, ideas, meetings and other important things in writing. Now, did I spend more time checking and writing “frivolous” e-mails (“Bagels in the 10th floor kitchen!”) than I should have? Heck, yeah. But I would argue that as mental breaks go, it was marginally better than Spider Solitaire or aimlessly surfing the web…:)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I guess checking emails is definitely more productive than ‘Spider Solitaire or aimlessly surfing the web’. But, for most people, I don’t think emailing would be classified as a ‘mental break’ – a lot of people I know are always complaining about completing this activity! it’s great that writing emails has allowed you to find your interest in writing in general, however, I don’t know how many other people would say the same. Regardless, you probably don’t check your emails 36 times an hour so I’m assuming you have emailing under control which is what I was trying to get at in this post. Thanks for the comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m in the process of changing jobs after 20 years in my present role, and I’ve been handing over to the new CEO. That includes emails of course. My inbox has gone from around 150 emails a day, arriving morning, noon and night, to just those personal to me; and it has transformed my life for the better! I now have time to do other things – even to talk to people! You are right, emails are a drain on a company’s human resources and are so sent unnecessarily.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post.

    Working with a startup, I’ve had my fair share of frustration with emails. It’s great that you brought up the kitchen analogy because that is exactly what’s happening.

    It’s important to understand why this happens as well. Aside from avoiding the work that we do, there are also a few other key characteristics I have observed of myself and from others regarding emails:

    1. Inbox captures both team and external communications. It’s convenient to do both in the same place, especially while it’s fresh in your head

    2. You don’t want to lose the thought/idea/important thing, so you quickly “store it in your inbox” and develop the idea by starting an email conversation. Add on the fact that a person might have potentially dozens of other ongoing email chains that requires respectful attention

    3. You’re looking for the next breakthru because you have had the experience of receiving valuable newsletters that have (supposedly) pushed you past a mental hurdle or a roadblock preventing you from reaching your goal

    All this I tend to simplify down to the idea that we are driven by pains and pleasure. Unfortunately with emails, sending and receiving a message knocks on the door of both worlds.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m aware of the benefits that emails can have, and I’m glad that you’ve mentioned them in this comment because I didn’t focus on them much in my post. I think you’re right that emails can act as a quick, convenient store/record of ideas, however, there is an optimal level of use of emails and I don’t believe that most of us have reached that optimum level.

      Thanks for the contribution!


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