Email overload is always in the top five most common problems my workshop participants complain about.
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.
• Harvard researchers.
• Basex, a New York- based research company who for many years specialised 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.
• Many other time management experts around the world, including Steuart Snooks an Australian email and information overload expert from Australia.
They come from many sources - face-to-face from colleagues or customers; any form of digital delivery - email, text, phone, SMS, instant messages of all varieties; and often we interrupt ourselves - because our focus is distracted for a range of reasons.
A few years ago I interviewed Jonathan Spira who was the Chief Analyst and Researcher of NY-based Basex, a company devoted to helping us navigate through today's minefield of knowledge management in our over-informed world. He gave me some startling data.
An average knowledge worker loses 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.
The first problem is the switching time. Add up all the seconds in a day spent changing mental gears as we move from task to task and we discover serious productivity loss.
The amount of lost time is related to the length of the interruption. Basex identified that it typically takes between 10-20 times the length of the interruption to get back refocused on the previous task. In other words, a 30 second interruption can easily take us off-task for 5-10 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.
But it gets worse.
The next problem is the number of times we don't get back to the previous task. As we all know, once our train of thought is broken there's a very good chance that we either don't return to a prior activity or we delay.
Don't believe me? How many open emails and applications do you have on your computer right now? Or how many items of paper or equipment are in your immediate space, waiting for you to decide where to put them? What actions or activities are awaiting a final decision or completion?
And what happens when we live constantly in a world where everything is going at warp speed, with multiple distractions? Think of many modern offices. There's constant low-level (or sometimes high-level) noise and movement. Phones ring, people walk by, emails ping as they arrive, and conversations happen all around you.
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.
Here are three strategies to help:
1. Turn off your notification. You don't need to know you've just received another email.
2. Chunk your email times so you're doing a block and then switching out of the programme until the next block. It might be hourly if your work requires regular checking, or it could be only two or three times a day.
3. Don't make email the first thing in your day - unless it truly is the most important task for you. If it's critical that you check what's come in overnight try a quick check on your phone; you're less likely to be sucked into the black vortex first thing in the day.