Robyn Pearce: Shocking statistics on email as a productivity stealer

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Time management and productivity consultant Robyn Pearce follows up on her controversial ideas on email overload:


I knew my last article 'Don't make email the first thing of the day' would be a tad controversial. I didn't expect quite so many responses! Of course there are exceptions some of which I outlined in the last article - for example, if your job is to deal with queries and assistance.

There is never only one right way of doing things. I invite you to treat my advice as a smorgasbord use what appeals but if what your current methods work for you, not for a minute am I suggesting that you should change it. However, if you're one of the majority who struggle to control your deluge of email so you can get other higher-level work completed, read on. (Email overload is always in the top 5 most common problems workshop participants complain about.)

What I endeavour to do in all my work, including this Small Business column, is to give sound road-tested techniques and, where space and time allows, expand with examples of successful applications. Most people only want the guts of a matter and quick solutions, not the background. However, given the range of opinions expressed on this email management topic, here's more material for you to get your teeth into.

There are two core issues:

1. Information overload and what it's doing to our productivity.

2. How long it takes to get refocused when we're interrupted.

First, information overload. You'll be interested in who's researching and offering advice much of it seemingly counter-intuitive to the way many people manage their daily digital load.

* Intel, since 1995.

* The University of Oklahoma - excellent work.

* Harvard researchers.

* Basex, a New York-based research company. They specialise in information overload.

* Microsoft and Google. They're members and contribute both financially and with research to the Information Overload Research Group, a non-profit interest group which began in 2008. It's dedicated to raising awareness, sharing research results and promoting solutions to help people manage information overload.

* Tim Ferris of 'The 4-Hour Work Week', in his white paper 'How to Eliminate Email Overload and Triple Your Productivity in 24 Hours'.

* Many other time management experts around the world, including Steuart Snooks, an Australian email and information overload expert from Australia.

And interruptions? They come from many sources - face-to-face from colleagues or customers; any form of digital delivery - email, text, phone, SMS; and often we interrupt ourselves - because our focus is distracted for a range of reasons.

I interviewed Steuart Snooks last year for our GettingAGrip Inner Circle membership programme. We went into a lot more detail than I can give in this short column, covering both the key points of his white paper 'The 8 Critical Impacts of Information and Email Overload' and some solutions. Below I share a few points and if you'd like more, read the summary of the interview for free at http://www.gettingagrip.com/steuart-snooks-email-information-overload/ So, ready for the shocking statistics?

Most knowledge workers lose about 28 per cent of their day or 2.1 hours a day to constant interruptions.

It's not the interruption itself, which might only be very brief, that's the issue. Nor is it the method of delivery. (Like many of you, I love the flexibility, portability, freedom and many wonderful time-savers of modern technology. For instance, this article is being created in gaps of spare time whilst I'm holidaying in Brittany. But I'm in control - my mobile is switched off and I only look at email a few times a week.)

The problem is the recovery time. It can take an extraordinary amount of time to get back the train of thought we had before the interruption occurred often between 15 20 minutes (and that's if we're not interrupted again!) This accumulates quite alarmingly over the period of a day. The information is often very relevant but it's the timing of its arrival (if we don't control it) that causes the damage. If we're already working on a higher priority task when it arrives, it has a strong negative impact.

Steuart Snooks: 'A common result is pseudo ADD, a term coined by two Harvard psychology professors to explain addiction to the bombardment of information. They noticed that many people are experiencing shortened attention span because of the forms of communications used today. This has a sustained negative neurological effect as well. It isn't an illness; it's purely a response to the hyper-kinetic environment in which we live.

'So when a manager is desperately trying to deal with more than he can possibly handle, the brain and body get locked into a circle where the brain's frontal lobes lose their sophistication. We get black and white thinking and we start to lose perspective and shades of gray. People with this sort of difficulty struggle to stay organised, to set priorities and to manage their time. They experience a constant low level feeling of panic and guilt.

'We must be careful that our technology doesn't drive our behaviour and that we actually have a behaviour that is right for the technology. Then we make sure we're the master and it stays as the slave.'

Paul Chin, in his online journal 'Dealing with information overload': "Rampant multi-tasking and the deluge of available information has produced a counterproductive culture and created a paradox. The more we try to do the less we get done. And the more inundated we are with information the less time we spend absorbing it."

Individual situations vary, but for many of us, some things we can't control but a surprising amount we can if we change a few simple things.

Reader giveaway: We have 2 double passes (worth $190.00 each) to giveaway to Robyn's next Breakfast Club in Christchurch (July 6th) or Auckland (July 27th). To be in to win, email your entry now to jill@gettingagrip.com with Breakfast (NZ Herald Online) in the subject line. Entries close by 5pm Friday 22nd June.

For those who miss out, tickets and more details are at: gettingagrip.com/breakfastclub/

Robyn Pearce (known as the Time Queen) runs an international time management and productivity business, based in New Zealand. Get your free report 'How To Master Time In Only 90 Seconds' and ongoing time tips at gettingagrip.com.

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