Email Is Making You Stupid

Thomas Fox is president of Tech Experts, southeast Michigan’s leading small business computer support company.

“The research is overwhelming. Constant email interruptions make you less productive, less creative, and, if you’re emailing while you’re also doing something else, just plain dumb.”

That quote – and the headline – comes from an article by Joe Robinson in Information Week magazine. When it arrived in my inbox, I was compelled to read it.

The fact is, as business owners, our lives have gotten incredibly more complex as we become more and more connected. Smart phones keep our email in front of us 24 hours a day, seven days a week – which compels us to be available on the same schedule.

The study Robinson sites was conducted by the University of Minnesota. It found that managing “peripheral tasks” – those things we do while we’re also doing something else – triggered twice the number of errors, and increased levels of annoyance by anywhere from 31 to 106 percent.

Time Is Money
Given our constant state of “connectedness” to clients, employees and prospects, it’s easy to think that we have to respond instantly to a request. I get caught in that trap: Thinking I’m being efficient when I handle something immediately.

Interestingly, Intel conducted a study of employee productivity, and found that email overload cost the company almost $1 billion a year in lost productivity. Each day, a typical office employee checks email 50 times, and uses an instant messaging application 77 times.

Interruptions like this not only sidetrack employees from their jobs, but also lower overall attention spans and increase stress by measurable levels. Job satisfaction and creativity also suffer.

Myth Of Multitasking
Again, from Robinson’s article: “Human brains come equipped with two kinds of attention: Involuntary and voluntary. Involuntary attention, designed to be on the watch for threats to survival, is triggered by outside stimuli – what grabs you.

It’s automatically rattled by the workday cacophony of rings, pings and buzzes that are turning jobs into an electronic game of Whac-a-Mole. Voluntary attention is the ability to concentrate on a chosen task.”

As your attention span is bounced around by constant interruptions, your brain changes: Interruptions erode an area called effortful control, and with it the ability to regulate attention.

In other words, the more you check your messages, the more you feel the need to check them – an urge familiar to BlackBerry or iPhone users.

The cult of multitasking would have us believe that compulsive message-checking is the behavior of an always-on, hyper-productive worker. But it’s not. It’s the sign of a distracted employee who misguidedly believes he can do multiple tasks at one time. Science disagrees.

People may be able to chew gum and walk at the same time, but they can’t do two or more thinking tasks simultaneously.

So, how do we crawl out of the attention void? Interruption management. Here’s some things I’m trying:

Turn off all of the alerts that let you know you’ve got mail.

Pick a few times per day – four maximum – to check your email. Outside of those designated times, keep Outlook closed.

Don’t let email be the default communication device. Communicating by phone or face-to-face saves time and builds relationships.

Respond immediately only to urgent issues. Just because a message can be delivered instantly does not mean you must reply instantly.

Severely restrict use of the reply-all function.

Put “no reply necessary” in the subject line when you can. No one knows when an e-conversation is over without an explicit signal.

Resist your reply reflex. Don’t send emails that say “Got it” or “Thanks.”

Use automatic out-of-office messages to carve out focused work time, such as: “I’m on deadline with a project and will be back online after 4 p.m.”

Please email me at and tell me about your interruption management methods. I’ll let you know in the next few months how it goes.