I have an article in The Guardian today (in the paper and online) about email, how it’s getting out of control and what we can do about it. It contains some of my thinking on email, operant conditioning, and how social tools can help us reduce the amount of email we send (and therefore, hopefully, receive). Here’s a taster:
Back in the early 1990s, email was a privilege granted only to those who could prove they needed it. Now, it has turned into a nuisance that’s costing companies millions. We may feel that we have it under control, but not only do we check email more often than we realise, but the interruptions caused are more detrimental than was previously thought. In a study last year, Dr Thomas Jackson of Loughborough University found that it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after interruption by email. So people who check their email every five minutes waste 8.5 hours a week figuring out what they were doing moments before.
It had been assumed that email doesn’t cause interruptions because the recipient chooses when to check for and respond to email. But Jackson found that people tend to respond to email as it arrives, taking an average of only one minute and 44 seconds to act upon a new email notification; 70% of alerts got a reaction within six seconds. That’s faster than letting the phone ring three times.
Added to this is the time people spend with their inbox. A July 2006 study by ClearContext, an email management tools vendor, surveyed 250 users and discovered that 56% spent more than two hours a day in their inbox. Most felt they got too much email – by January 2008, 38% of respondents received more than 100 emails a day – and that it stopped them from doing other things.
Dr Karen Renaud, a lecturer at the University of Glasgow, and her colleagues at the University of the West of Scotland discovered that email users fall into three categories: relaxed, driven and stressed. “The relaxed group don’t let email exert any pressure on their lives,” Renaud says. “They treat it exactly the way that one would treat the mail: ‘I’ll fetch it, I’ll deal with it in my own time, but I’m not going to let it upset me’.” The second group felt “driven” to keep on top of email, but also felt that they could cope with it. The third group, however, reacted negatively to the pressure of email. “That causes stress,” says Renaud, “and stress causes all sorts of health problems.”
Read the rest on The Guardian website or in the paper.
Thanks to everyone who helped me out with this article, especially Tom Stafford who was my original inspiration!