Email is bad for you. A new UK study, reported in Friday’s Guardian, comes to this unsurprising conclusion:
Respondents' minds were all over the place as they faced new questions and challenges every time an email dropped into their inbox. Productivity at work was damaged and the effect on staff who could not resist trying to juggle new messages with existing work was the equivalent, over a day, to the loss of a night's sleep.
I think it’s fair to say that I was addicted to email in my last job, but equally it would have been difficult to operate without it. It was always a great temptation to deal with stuff that came in to my inbox rather than working on the other stuff, made worse by the complaints when I didn’t respond to an “urgent” request from an accounting drone in Singapore. Some people seemed genuinely surprised that they didn’t get an instant response to their emails, obviously assuming that everyone checks their email inbox continuously. My view was that anyone who did that can’t have been concentrating on their work (and I often made a conscious effort to delay my reply to emails in order not to create that impression!!). So I’d have to agree with Dr Wilson on this one:
The most damage was done, according to the survey, by the almost complete lack of discipline in handling emails. Dr Wilson and his colleagues found a compulsion to reply to each new message, leading to constant changes of direction which inevitably tired and slowed down the brain.
In truth, much email is no different to a phone call, and one can imagine someone doing a similar study about how disruptive phone calls can be to the average office worker. At least with email you can choose to ignore it whilst you are working on something that requires your full concentration. That word discipline seems to be the key – if you allow email to distract you, it will, but it certainly doesn’t have to do so. Equally, time spent checking your inbox or replying to non-urgent emails may well be time that would otherwise be spent on some other distraction.
One of the many problems with email is that it’s so easy to misunderstand what is required. If someone has copied you on an email, does that mean they even want you to read it (or have you just been copied as a matter of courtesy), do they expect you to understand all the details (or is it just to show that they are doing something), and do you have to do anything? Whilst some people read through every single email, others obviously don’t bother to read a single word of most emails. Getting the balance right is not easy - I read almost everything, or at least scan through it, but I realize that some of that time is wasted.
Incidentally, I love the way that some people ask for a receipt, so they know that someone has opened the email, as if that proved anything at all – I tend to subvert this system (where possible) by reading the email but blocking the receipt, and no-one has ever complained that I didn’t read their precious email message.
Does a "high priority" flag on an email tell us anything except that the self-same accounting drone wants you to think that their request is important? Anyway, if you don't answer an email when it's sitting near the top of your inbox, how do you remember to reply to it later?
Now people have Crackberrys (Fumier is the latest to succumb) so that they can read and reply to emails on the MTR, in taxis and on the beach. As with everything else email related, they obviously have the potential to be very useful or to drive you crazy. Can’t live with email, can’t live without it.