The Email Problem and How To Solve It

Leisa Reichelt very kindly took notes on my talk for me at today’s Web 2.0: Practical Applications for Business Benefit. Thanks Leisa! Luis Suarez recorded the talk on his mobile, I think, and the audio is now also available. Thanks Luis!

The Email Problem and How To Solve It
I want to talk to you about email, the psychology of email

It is a vital part of business, we all depend on it and we don’t even think about how we use it despite the fact that it’s really very new – only had it in business for the last 10 years or so. As email spreads it tendrils and becomes more and more common – it’s ubiquitous now, there was a time when you had to make a business case for email, now its the first thing you get. And it’s starting to become a problem.

Clear Context: 38% of people get more than 100 emails a day, 13% get more than 250 a day. 22% spend more than 4hrs a day in email. For some people email is an intrinsic part of their job but 4hrs a day is mind numbing.

I worry that people underreport how much email they get.

A study recently said that some people claimed they checked email every hour, 35% said every 15 minutes. But when observed they were actually checking email every 5 minutes. Who hasn’t had a moment when before they know it you’re checking your email again, even though you only checked it a moment ago?

There is an assumption that email doesn’t interrupt us because we chose to go to our inbox and check, but this is false because people don’t chose when to check. We tend to have alerts set up – I actually heard someone who had an alert that said ‘you’ve got mail’ – every time an alert comes through, people respond. People take an average of 1 minute 44 seconds to respond and 70% of people respond within 6 seconds of getting the alert.

It’s well known that phone calls interrupt us and it takes time to get back to what we were doing. It takes an average of 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after you have checked your email and get back to work.

So if some people are checking their email every five minutes and it takes 64 seconds to recover, they are taking 8hrs a week just to remember what they were doing… this is a big problem! We don’t really know how big a problem because there has been little observational research done.

There are two problems here – they’re different and they require two different approaches.

The first is to do with the tool, more particularly the way we use the tool. The second is to do with culture, the way that culture shapes the way we behave with certain tools.

A few questions:

– how many used to check your email occasionally but now you check all the time, it’s compulsive?

– how many feel you don’t really have control over when you check your email?

– how many feel pre-occupied by email i when separated you wonder if anything interesting has come in?

– how many have lots of emails in your inbox?

– how many feel anxious that something has happened when separated from your email?

– how many did not you put your hand up at one point or another?

Ignoring Luis, it’s just two.

Unfortunately those questions aren’t about email at all, they’re about gambling addiction.

I did this at a large company and despite answering positively to these questions, they said ‘we don’t have a problem, we have smart people.’

But the last symptom of addiction is denial – we are all in denial. The tool is so widespread it is hard to believe we have a problem with it. But the reason that email is an issue is the same reason that gambling is an issue – it’s called operant conditioning. If you do something and you get a reward for doing it you are more likely to do it again in the future – this is how training dogs (and cats) works.

Operant conditioning was discovered by BF Skinner who experimented with rats – in a cage with a lever, when they pressed the lever they’d get a food pellet. They’d press the lever to get a pellet until they were sated. Then he changed the schedule, first to five presses, which they learned, and then to random. When it changed to random the rats became obsessed with the lever, pressing and pressing, and stockpiling food that they didn’t need and continuing to press even when the food reward was no longer forthcoming.

This is like us with email – we get nice emails from people, but randomly. We like these nice emails, so we check our inbox over and over just in case those nice emails turn up… and we become obsessed, like Skinners rats.

Not all email is created equal, most of it we find boring – we’re looking for that nice email.

So we have to deal with this in a way that deals with this – just quitting email is not the answer (except for Luis). Will power isn’t enough to do this. But what can we do?

We could remove the random component – we can try to ensure there is always a nice email waiting for us. It’s very difficult to ensure this though.

We can try to break the link between the behaviour and the reward (eg a five minute delay), but it’s not really feasible in a business context – some businesses have tried this and failed.

We can remove the reward completely – stop using email altogether – this is very difficult though.

We can, and should, remove stimulus to check – get rid of the alerts.

We can remove free will – remove the choice to check email – for example, we schedule our email usage (most common times: first thing in the morning, just before lunch, just after lunch, and just before you go home). This is a good time for you to check email because you can be more responsive to others and get more response from others because everyone is more active at the same time. [Leisa correctly adds: “Assuming you are in the same time zone”.]

Reinforce incompatible behaviour – bird training – you can’t train animals to NOT do something you can only train an alternate behaviour – instead of trying to train a bird NOT to land on your head, train it to land on the green mat instead. We need to try to positively reinforce behaviours, like using instant messenger or other social tools.

What we need to do in order to achieve this is to determine how we use email on a day to day basis. So, in a business context, there is what’s called Bacn – like spam but tastier – information that come to you that you’ve probably signed up for (notifications) but are not all that interesting. We could do this much better via RSS than email.

We can move broadcast email to blogs – eg. where is the new expense form – you don’t need this in your in box because it’s not an action, and when you do need it the last place you will look is your inbox.

Move collaboration to a wiki – ref: Common Craft video of wikis. The number of emails we send around asking people to review and comment on stuff – this would all be done much more effectively on a Wiki. Ask yourself where would this discussion be done more effectively.

Real time conversation – this can be had much better on instant messenger or chat rather than in an email conversation or – heaven forbid, picking up the phone and talking, or walking over to someone’s desk.

No email days don’t work – all they do is push it to one side – people email more on either side of ‘No Email Wednesday’ – it doesn’t deal with the underlying cause so it’s not effective.

There’s also a cultural side to this and this is the thing that is really hard to deal with. If 13% of people are getting 250 emails a day somebody somewhere is sending lots of email. It has become a proxy for work. In the manufacturing age we could tell how productive someone was by how many spanners they made. In a knowledge economy it is hard to know what work is, let alone how productive they are. Other proxies are time spent in meetings, distance travelled to meetings, time spent at desk.

Because these have become proxies for work they have become a point of pride. There is a martyrdom complex – the more email you get the more productive you are. Lots of email = status. The more email you get the more important you are – this is a social reward for getting/sending lots of email.

There is a lot of CYA email being sent – they don’t think you need to know, but they need to know that they have seen your email. It is a defence ‘didn’t you see my email?’ a lot of this is driven by job insecurity. They are defensive about their position – they think ‘I cannot afford to be the person who takes the fall if something goes wrong’ – email becomes an audit trail in case something goes wrong.

There is lots of corporate spam and this creates bad email culture – broadcast email sends a message that is is ok to bombard people in the company with useless email. We hit reply to all rather than reply to sender with no thought at all. If I could get rid of one button it would be the reply to all button.

It is about changing behaviour, changing norms. It takes a long time and it’s difficult. We need to discourage reply to all, and the expectation of instant reply – pick up the phone, use IM, walk over to them. No one states their expectation in an email re: whether they need a reply at all – eg this is just FYI and I don’t need a response, or this is v urgent and I need a response in an hour, or this is not urgent you can respond by 20 October.

Example: my husband checked his email on a Friday night, and he got an email saying that there was a problem at work and spent time fixing the problem on the Friday night. Then got into work on the Monday and they were surprised that he’d done anything – but his expectation was that he needed to sort it out immediately.

Email is fundamental to business – if you took away email tomorrow the economy would collapse, it’s our key way of exchanging information and communicating, but we know very little about email, and we assume far too much.

After today bear two questions in mind as you get back to work and settle into your routine: How many of us truly understand email? And how many are really in control of our email?

Posted in Audio, Presentations.


  1. Pingback: E L S U A ~ A KM Blog Thinking Outside The Inbox by Luis Suarez » Blog Archive » Web 2.0 Expo In Berlin - Day 2 Highlights

  2. Hello , Suw

    This is certainly an issue I’ve pondered many times so I just had to toss in my opinions. Over the years I’ve made many on-line contacts. I like getting to know folks from all over etc. Back in School, about 20 years ago, I had numerous pen pals and between letters would often take 11 days. Still, that didn’t change the excitement I’d feel when there was a letter addressed specifically for me in my mailbox.
    I believe that’s the reason why people enjoy getting mail. The mail we enjoy reading is from a cherished friend and in anticipation of their being a message from such a friend we eagerly check our mail.
    Spam is very much a different thing, using our trusting mailbox weak spot, to slip an offer under the door without the company or salesman having to waste time or expense with postage. But Spam is for another blog or another day.

    Two questions you present: “How many of us truly understand email? And how many are really in control of our email?”
    Well, would it matter if you could put a percentage to the question of how many? I would imagine that people who are organized and present themselves respectively and care about who is reading their e-mails will be those who understand their e-mail. That proof is in the pudding.

    Ethics already dictate proper business correspondences and I suppose that subject of e-mail behavior has been thoroughly picked over with flaming e-mails to people that have upset us in some way or how about those who put others in the loop of your discussion by adding their address to their B.C.C. or the famous reply-to-all sorts who say they have done so by accident. Certainly, there are plenty of pot-stirrers in this world. It’s easy to take specific words out of context and recycle them to fit schemes.
    Now, I’ve encountered another dimension when it comes to control of e-mail that until this great advent of communication would have otherwise been unknown. I’m not talking about how much my in-box may be overloaded with things I should read or with things I never wanted or needed I’m talking about the human anonymity that can make such letter writing either a warm and bubbly thing you are eagerly waiting to receive from some distant friend or something horrid you’d wished you never read. In this dimension you can gain very close personal friends, friends who may in fact divulge information to you that may have been before, reserved to diaries or priests! Always try at least to be a good friend and write so that people will know that you are.
    As you know, we are still only human and humans are actually very fragile things and we pass away before we know it. Life is actually very short. I’ve had 2 such close personal friends pass away over the years and both were thousands of miles away from me. Also, I didn’t find out right away of their passing. Only knew that there weren’t any more letters in my in-box from them not final reply to letters that I would have assumed to be a lifelong dialog.
    I propose that to anybody you consider important enough to check your e-mail for, religiously; you should pen a going away letter in the event of your demise. My wife has a list of people to send just such an e-mail to, should I pass away unexpectedly.

    Rob Owen

  3. Suw,
    I had another thought. Had you ever noticed that, for whatever reason, either business or friendship. That if somebody doesn’t reply back at least within 11 days we tend to no longer waits in anticipation? The timing seems different for various people. I’ve found that the people I most get along with are easy going and reply back just about whenever but usually within 11 days. I’ve found that if I’m impatient and send out an e-mail expecting a reply back immediately that it sends up some sort of controlling, demanding aspect or some unfulfilled need. You’re study should boil down to how many people can any of us actually efficiently and effectively correspond with on a daily basis. For me, that number would be only about 10 or 12 depending upon what they ask of me.

    I’ll leave your blogs alone now and get back to reading Buckminster Fuller….

    Hwyl fawr!

    P.S. Hopefully, when I die my wife will send out my passing letter and hopefully I won’t have killed myself in some means as to get myself on the “Darwin Awards” list. Such a letter would give respectful closure to those whom we’ve eagerly awaited letters from.

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