Email Overload: Time to Break Free Before It Overwhelms Us

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The bell sounds woke me. They were continuous and getting louder by the second.

Ding-a-ling-ding-a-ling!

I raised my head and there they were – dozens of them! Then hundreds! Falling from the virtual clouds around me into MS Outlook like a deluge of rain filling bucket after bucket.

Ding-a-ling-ding-a-ling!

A tsunami of emails

Then there were thousands! I tried to reach up, to shut Outlook down, but my hands were bound behind me in a tight jacket of some kind. I writhed and jerked, but couldn’t budge.

Ding-a-ling-ding-a-ling!

They kept coming, like a flash flood at first, then a tsunami. I tried to kick away from my desk, but my legs were bound as well. I slumped in horror as email after email fell from the heavens into my laptop and filled my eyes with unending misery.

Some were spam, some from colleagues and peers with urgent requests, some were from my superiors with triple-urgent requests (with at least 13 exclamation points each). Emails that I thought I had already dealt with and either filed away or deleted downloaded yet again, in triplicate.

Ding-a-ling-ding-a-ling!

In the lower left corner of the laptop screen, an old MTV video started – Quiet Riot’s Bang Your Head (Mental Health).

Wait, what?

Ding-a-ling-ding-a-ling!

A nightmare many of us experience

And then the unthinkable happened – the emails stopped with the last one downloading and opening on its own.

© Mangsaab - Fotolia

© Mangsaab – Fotolia

It read as follows: “If you ever want to have a life again, you have 30 minutes to answer every single one of these messages, thoughtfully, logically, respectfully, without any emotive reactions whatsoever. And you have to do it while strapped in that straightjacket. Good luck.”

You’ve got to be friggin’ kidding me?

Another email downloaded. “Tick-tock,” it read.

I shrieked as the morning sun spilled through my office window…

“Noooooooooooo!!!”

A huge cost in lost productivity

It’s like that, right? All of us “dump and run” and then we’re held hostage every day by the very communication tool that was supposed to free us over two decades ago.

It’s even longer ago for some of us; I went to college and worked at San Jose State University in the late 1980s and we had fully functional email and intranets; most universities did way back then.

But in recent times? It’s broken bad (and even if you didn’t watch that show, I’m sure you’ll agree anyway). Really, really broken bad.

In fact, according to research from a few years ago, email overload can cost large companies as much as $1 billion a year in lost employee productivity. And the average “knowledge” professional today – basically anyone who sits at a desk – loses 2.1 hours of productivity every day to interruptions and distractions (according to Basex, an IT research and consulting firm).

Every time we’re interrupted, and every time we allow ourselves to be interrupted, it takes us 3-4 times the interruption to recover. And you thought it was bad enough working in an office with multiple people every day stopping by your “workspace” and asking if you’ve “gotta minute?”

How do we ever get anything friggin’ done around here?!? Constant in-person and email interruptions that demand attention aren’t collaboration in action. Ever.

We’re doing it to ourselves

Come to think of it, though, it’s not the email tools that hold us hostage, it’s all those colleagues, peers and superiors who do, those who dump and run. Especially our superiors who don’t value the old-fashioned phone call or face-time chat about whatever needs to be chatted about. Remember the bravery of being out of range?

My God, this is a big change management bugaboo, don’t you think?

Happy Frickin’ New Year.

Even email productivity expert Marsha Egan grappled with that on the TalentCulture #TChat Show, acknowledging that it takes all of management buying in on using email only for non-sensitive, non-urgent communications that don’t require immediate response.

Please, right? That’s a tall task for most companies today. But we, the individual contributors, can make a difference, even knowing that no matter how much we feel that email is killing “world of work” productivity, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

And while our companies are losing worker productivity, we’re all extending the length of their workdays, going to the office on weekends, and checking our email while on vacation because we can no longer manage the volume of communication that requires our attention – the bad daydream from above.

Toxic habits the infect everyone

This is how email habits have become toxic to individuals and businesses alike.

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Blech. But instead, why don’t we have a repetitively “productive” conversation around why and how unhealthy e-mail practices are sapping personal and business productivity, what you can do about it, and how much time you can reclaim for yourself and your business.

Hey, I took Marsha Egan’s E-mail Productivity Assessment, and this is what it told me:

Your email habits need plenty of work. Here are some tips to get you started…

Two tips for dealing with email

That was my incoming email evaluation. The good news is that my outgoing email score was much better.

Either way, I highly recommend you take the assessment. And while you’re doing that, consider these two tips when dealing with email toxicity:

  1. Don’t hold each other hostage. If you have an urgent request, please walk over and ask the person, or pick up the phone and ask the person (if you’re not in the same office). Or use instant messaging via your intranet (built around your people) or social media, or make a video call, or simply text the person. But stop dumping urgent emails and running, especially if you’re in a leadership position. The more we spiral and “bang our heads” with email reactivity, the more we hold each other hostage, the more time we spend answering urgent emails, the more we don’t get anything done. Ever.
  2. Pace yourself. I’m completely guilty of the constant social media check-in, to continuously see what’s happening on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and more. A Facebook friend asked her “friends” recently what they do to stay productive. I responded by turning off Facebook, which I can’t do, so screw it. Sigh. But, the same goes for email, at least for bigger chunks of the day when you’ve got projects due. Being a writer I should know better, and thankfully sometimes I do, sometimes, which is why we should always block off our time when we’ve got to get stuff done. That means turning off the email and the social media.

Ding-a-ling-ding-a-ling!

Stop the madness, kids. Let stop banging our heads in 2015.

This was originally published on Kevin Grossman’s Reach West blog.

Kevin Grossman

Kevin W. Grossman is the Talent Board president of global programs responsible for all aspects of the Candidate Experience Awards worldwide, the first nonprofit research organization focused on the elevation and promotion of a quality candidate experience. He also produces and hosts multiple “world of work” podcasts including The CandEs Shop Talk and WorkingTech. A certified Talent Acquisition Strategist (TAS) and Human Capital Strategist (HCS) by HCI, he has over 19 years of domain expertise in the human resource and talent acquisition industry.