As news director at WKYT in Lexington, Robert Thomas receives as many as 700 e-mails in a day – everything from press releases detailing school, business, and local and state government news to spur-of-the-moment tips from citizens reporting police activity near their homes.
And while no one denies the indispensable business tool e-mail has become – with an estimated 2 million e-mails sent every second, it has become the primary mode of business communication today – managing an in-box that is bursting at the seams leaves many workers reeling.
“It’s tough,” admits Thomas. “You spend a lot of your day going through your in-box looking for stuff, trying to pinpoint what’s important and what’s not important.”
Thomas tries to stay afloat by checking his e-mail twice a day at a minimum. In power sessions in the morning and before he leaves each day, he acts on what he can and deletes everything that’s nonessential. Even when he’s technically on vacation, he logs in daily to avoid having his e-mail account crash altogether from overload.
Thomas is far from alone in experiencing “e-mail fatigue” – a term that’s gained usage to describe the pinch we all feel when the unread e-mails in our in-boxes scroll on seemingly for days.
For some, a staggering in-box message count is a sort of twisted badge of honor. Some workers thrive on hoarding their messages. Others claim they’re just too busy or too unorganized to clean out their in-boxes.
Even more use their e-mail as a crutch, a built-in procrastination tool. One 2007 study by Microsoft and the University of Illinois showed it takes, on average, nearly 17 minutes for a worker interrupted by an e-mail to get back to whatever he or she was doing before taking the e-mail break. The study suggests it takes 10 additional minutes for the worker to achieve the same level of concentration as before the interruption – meaning every checked e-mail can equate to nearly 30 minutes of lost workplace productivity.
The research firm Basex estimates e-mail and other interruptions cost businesses more than $650 billion a year in decreased productivity and lost man hours.
Mark Hurst, author of Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload, doesn’t believe all the excuses. He says the cause of all the overload is simple: Most workers carrying around in-boxes with years’ worth of obsolete, backlogged messages don’t manage their in-boxes because they don’t know how to.
“Workers are given all these courses on computer literacy,” Hurst says, “but they’re never taught skills to handle the information overload coming at them” – a skill set Hurst calls “bit literacy.”
Hurst advocates a simple mantra for obtaining e-mail in-box control: “open, engage, and move it out.” He teaches workers to stop thinking of their in-box as a catch all and instead view it as simply a holding zone – a place for messages to stay only until they are moved to appropriate files or to-do lists to be acted on either now or later. He urges a goal of clearing out your in-box every day.
Anything less results in decreased productivity as workers hunt for often-misplaced messages, struggle to reply to a message against a swarm of others awaiting their attention, and constantly open and re-open messages to remind themselves of what they say.
Since implementing bit literacy e-mail management strategies with employees in his own New York-based consulting firm, Hurst has seen a doubling of productivity in terms of revenue gain, he says.
An Invaluable Tool
Talk to any field of business in the state and you’ll hear the same thing: For sending out a mass, targeted message, e-mail can’t be beaten.
Since 2003, Lexington-based BlueGrass Mailing, Data and Fulfillment Services has seen a rapid increase in the number of business clients – in every arena from sports to retail to the horse industry – demanding its help to create effective commercial e-mail marketing campaigns, says John Young with the agency’s business development office.
During the Kentucky state government’s legislative sessions, The Kentucky League of Cities uses a targeted mailing service to send out as many at 6,500 messages daily. The “e-blasts” go literally across the state, updating mayors, city clerks, chiefs of police and other local offices about pertinent legislation.
“E-mail allows us to have a lot more contact with many more people, and to track who is opening our messages and reading them” says Terri Johnson, senior marketing and communications manager for the Kentucky League of Cities.
At Western Kentucky University, so many requests for admissions information have begun coming in through e-mail, Facebook and other electronic information portals that the college’s undergraduate admission’s office recently re-assigned one of its officers to do nothing but respond to those outlets, said Scott Gordon, WKU’s director of admissions.
“All schools are embracing e-mail as a recruitment instrument because it’s both a specific and a general tool,” Gordon says. On a recent morning, Gordan had alternately used e-mail to invite a targeted group of 100 prospective students interested in the arts to WKU’s campus to attend an upcoming theater event, and to reply directly to a question posed by another would-be student from his own hometown of Murray.
At Toyota Motor Manufacturing’s Georgetown plant, e-mail comes in handy not only for sharing information simultaneously with colleagues in Japan and at Toyota’s other North American offices, but across the sprawling, 7.5 million-s.f. facility itself.
“We’re working in a plant that’s the size of 156 football fields,” said Rick Hesterberg, assistant manager of external affairs. “So even in our own facility here, e-mail is quite invaluable.”
Still, as valuable a tool as e-mail is for communicating across distance and to multiple recipients simultaneously – not to mention its cost-effectiveness and environmental friendliness (just think of all those saved postage stamps, paper and trees) – everyone seems to agree there’s got to be a better way of navigating the sea of new messages that come at us each day.
“It’s a chronic problem that anyone with an e-mail account must address,” Hurst said.
While there are many e-mail assistance programs available on the market to help filter out the unwanted, place mail from specific senders into assigned folders, and prioritize messages from certain sources, Hurst feels that other than utilizing the vitally important spam filter, it’s best to simply bite the bullet and do the managing yourself.
Once you force yourself to do the admittedly daunting task of initially deleting down to achieve zero in-box messages, Hurst says most workers agree it’s actually not difficult to maintain that goal, since it becomes habit.
“Then with their e-mail under control,” Hurst says, “they tell me they feel ready at last to focus on their real projects.”
Other Tips for Maintaining Your In-box
David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, also advocates acting on items that require less than 2 minutes’ time right away and emptying the in-box by filing other messages with longer to-do items in appropriate e-mail files with names like “@Action” and “@Waiting For Response” or “@Read/Review” (the @ sign will put the folders at the top of your list).
Merlin Mann, another productivity expert, suggests shutting off your e-mail’s auto-check and instead setting it to check for new e-mails only every 20 minutes. That reduces the temptation to stop incessantly throughout the day to read incoming e-mails. He also says we should be writing less: aim for quick, lucid messages rather than rambling ones.
Timothy Ferris, author of The Four-Hour Workweek, recommends batching your e-mail reading and replying sessions into a few specific times, such as 10 a.m., 2 p.m., and 4 p.m., so that you aren’t interrupting your productivity all day long by stopping to read and act on new e-mail.
Some experts argue you shouldn’t check your e-mail first thing in the morning. They encourage working at least an hour to hour and a half before opening your e-mail in-box for the day. This strategy both maximizes early morning productivity and reduces the urge to procrastinate.
Joe Kissell, a columnist with MacWorld magazine, also notes the importance of reducing e-mail inflow from the source by opting out of newsletters, listservs, e-mail advertisements and other messages you don’t want or need.
“Bit Literacy” Method of Maintaining Your In-Box
In his book Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload, Mark Hurst suggests the following strategy for e-mail management:
Step 1: Read all personal e-mails then delete them.
Step 2: Delete all spam mail.
Step 3. Engage FYIs and action items, then delete them by 1) first deleting or filing FYIs 2) acting on all to-do items that can be accomplished in under two minutes 3) and finally moving all big to-do items to their appropriate folder or list for later action.