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Want to Get More Done? Tame Your Inbox

June 21, 2016

Want to Get More Done? Tame Your Inbox

Our addiction to email continues. The most recent study validating what we already know about our out-of-control email habit is from Adobe. Their study of US-based white collar workers found we spend nearly six hours a day – 30+ hours a week – on our email.

That's a lot of wasted time.

In fact, we're suffering wasted time and lost productivity well beyond just the 30+ hours actually searching for, reading through, and responding to our emails. Email distraction even negatively affects our productivity when we're not looking at email.

Constantly Switching Between Email and Other Work Stresses Us Out

Adobe's study also found that 24% of its respondents think they check email too often. Forty percent report forcing themselves to go into "email detox" and avoid their inbox for days at a time. If your company is still using email as its primary mode of communication, that means important work and updates are getting ignored.

Another study out of Canada found when they allowed study participants to check their email as often they wanted (on average, 15 times a day), participants expressed much higher stress levels than when they were limited to only checking it three times a day. The researchers attribute the correlation between stress levels and how often we check our inboxes to the mental toll constantly having to switch our focus of attention.

The mental energy required to continuously re-focus our attention and understanding to new contexts and issues, leaves us less mental energy to get substantive work done. And don't fool yourself that you're a multi-tasker. Larry Kim put together a great round-up of the research showing that multi-tasking is killing our brains – not helping us get more done.

Just Thinking About Our Overflowing Inboxes Exhausts Us

It's not just the constant context-switching wrought by checking inboxes that saps our productivity. We're also distracted merely thinking about all the email we need to address, and what questions, or tasks, they're sharing that we must respond to.

The Zeigarnik Effect is the psychological phenomena that we more easily recall and focus on unfinished tasks, rather than completed ones. Such as inboxes filled with emails wanting for action and responses. This effect explains that feeling of satisfaction we get when checking something off our to-do list, or deleting or filing away an email.

Current Solutions to the Overflowing Inbox Misdiagnose the Problem

There's no shortage of articles and tips on how to manage your email. Set specific times to look at it. Write shorter emails. Set up rules and flags and folders.

Great. But all those tips don't really help. The lost productivity and mental focus from the context-switching and streams of email threads remains. The problem isn't how we manage email.

The problem is that email is not the most efficient way to collaborate.

Most of us misuse email — trying to stretch its capabilities beyond its greatest strengths. Email is best used to communicate information that isn’t urgent to lots of people, e.g. acknowledging people for their efforts, advising of changes in company policies, etc. What it’s not good at is conveying urgent, time-essential information best done using instant messaging, live chat, texting, or a phone call.

Most of us are guilty of trying to get people to use it to collaborate in making decisions on complex issues. This is best handled in a conference — whether by phone, video, or in person. When done by email, it leads to mega-long, complicated, incomplete threads that frustrate everyone.

Authors of this Harvard Business Review article tell the interesting story of a company that decided to tackle the inbox problem as an industrial process, not a mode of communication. Where were the inefficiencies and defects? They ultimately decided that the key problem was too much output. That there was just too much email. And email breeds worse than the tribbles on Star Trek, resulting in even more email.

The executive team decided to radically reduce their email output. Their mission was to select the form of communication that would most efficiently complete the specific work task in question. The result was that the executives cut their email output by 54% in three months. They also found that the email output of their other employees went down even more, by 64%.

They concluded that cutting their email output resulted in a 7% increase in productivity – a full 10,400 more effort-hours. The article authors note that this company has been able to sustain the low email output going on two years after they started the experiment.

This begs the question – what is the most efficient form of communication for any given task?

At Samepage, we've found that directly linking our work output with the conversation we have around it eliminates the toll of context-switching. It's just one way the new stream of collaborative, social tools offers communication options that focus on productivity – not talk.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), the greatest potential value in social technologies is in the knowledge-sharing and collaborative mechanisms they provide for companies to be productive. MGI explains that right now companies are primarily using social technologies to connect externally to customers, whereas they'll find the greatest benefits to their organizations by turning these social technologies inward.

MGI estimates that companies using social technologies have the ability to increase the productivity of their knowledge workers by 20% to 25%.


Social technologies intended to boost productivity will have various modes of communication embedded, from conversation streams to live chat and video. And all of it searchable, retrievable, and ideally connected to the content being discussed. When we can keep conversation, content, and context all together in one place, we're improving our productivity and our mental health.