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Overcoming E-mail Overload to Regain Productivity

By Joan Lloyd

Do you receive too much e-mail?
Do you send too much e-mail?
Does your e-mail have a negative affect on your productivity?
How many hours a day do you spend on e-mail?

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Those were the questions the IABC (International Association of Business Communicators) asked their members around the globe recently. Any guesses about their responses? Their answers, in a nutshell were: 'Yes', 'Yes', 'Yes', and 'too much'. I've been hearing similar refrains from colleagues and clients, so, to learn more, I spoke with the President of the IABC, Julie Freeman, about the study.

"We wanted to take a pulse of our membership and the results were clear-most people are struggling with how to manage it all and it's having a significant impact on productivity around the world. An overwhelming majority (85 percent) said that it was having a negative impact at least some of the time. It was even higher (93 percent) for users of Blackberry devices and other personal digital assistants (PDAs)."

According to the study, the biggest culprits when it comes to the source of e-mail overload are:

  • News sources and professional subscriptions (61 percent)
  • Co workers (39 percent)
  • Professional networks (34 percent)
  • Team/department sources (29 percent)
  • Company-wide corporate sources such as senior management and HR (23 percent)

And talk about the tail wagging the dog...eighty-one percent leave their e-mail open all day, 40% spend at least two hours daily responding to e-mail and 35% spent three hours or more! For some people, it's almost an addiction. One CIO I know has catalogued over 26,000 e-mails on his computer. If there was a 12-step program for e-mail addicts, he'd be a candidate for the program.

I was intrigued by the geographic breakdown of the study. For example, the US, Canada, Europe and the Asia/Pacific region all scored high (with the US highest by a nose) in the negative impact on productivity category (roughly 45 percent saying it "sometimes" had a negative affect). But Mexico and South America ranked highest (43 percent saying it "regularly" had a negative impact). Freeman speculated, "We will conduct more research on these numbers but I might hypothesize that in more social cultures, they may use e-mail more. In addition, if they don't have access to home computers or reliable phone lines in their personal lives, they may e-mail more at work."

So, what are the common practices that get us into trouble? Freeman responds, "My son, who is a lawyer, thinks that the 'Reply All' button will be the end of Western Civilization! Personally, it's one of my pet peeves, too. It really irks me when I receive an invitation to a meeting, for example, and for the next week I receive everyone's replies. I end up opening fifteen subsequent e-mails saying, 'I can come'. I frankly don't care and it's a waste of my time."

Then there is the "CC" and the "Blind CC" button, which is a hold over from the days when people actually did "carbon copy" someone. Today, these are used to leave a paper trail for future reference, should the need arise. While copying people is often efficient and useful to keep them informed, in some companies this practice has run off the rails of common sense.

There is no single answer when it comes to putting a lid on the problem. Some companies have instituted "No e-mail Fridays" in an attempt to force people to think through how they communicate. Freeman notes, "It will be interesting to see if that has any affect. It could be helpful. Now, we are becoming so reactive, it may make people aware of the need to get up and go down the hall to talk to someone face-to-face, or take time to plan.

Companies have policies designed to protect their systems from viruses, such as not opening attachments or prohibiting instant messaging. And of course, they have policies against inappropriate use of the Internet, but they don't seem to have much in place about how to use e-mail effectively. This might be a huge, new growth area for educating employees. The answer, I think, is self-discipline for both the sender and the receiver."

Here are a few common sense tips to keep in mind:

  • Make a conscious decision to limit the amount of time you spend checking e-mail. For example, one hour in the morning, a half-hour at lunch and an hour before you leave (or at home).
  • Refrain from automatically hitting "Reply All" and "Copy All," except when it makes good sense.
  • Turn off the sound on your computer, so that you won't be tempted to check each e-mail every time you hear the bell, like one of Pavlov's dogs.
  • If you find yourself going on for more than a paragraph or two, pick up the phone or pay a visit.
  • Ditto if you are spending too much time choosing the right words, so you are clearly understood, or don't offend.
  • Never hit "Reply" when you are angry or irked. Sit on the e-mail for at least a few hours before responding.
  • Make extra effort to put in pleasantries, disclaimers, and fully explanatory statements in all your e-mails. Otherwise, the receiver will not know what tone the text has. Smiley faces can help but they can also come off as cold, patronizing or sarcastic without the appropriate wording.
  • Text messaging or using your laptop to respond to e-mails during a meeting is rude to the rest of the people in the room (and the justification, "Everyone else does it," is a lousy excuse).
  • If you are drowning in e-mail, and you have a trusted assistant, enlist him or her to help you screen your e-mails, or at least sort them by priority.
  • If you are planning something, pick up the phone-going back and forth with bits of information is time consuming and frustrating.

Joan Lloyd has a solid track record of excellent results. Her firm, Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding. This includes executive coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, customized leadership training, team assessment/teambuilding and retreat facilitation. Her line of management, career and job hunting tools (booklets, audios, CD & video) are available on her website. Email Joan if you have a question you would like considered for publication. Visit her website, www.JoanLloyd.com, to search her archive of more than 1100 articles, by keyword or category.

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