Checking email throughout the day may seem like the best way to deal with potential Information Age overload. While some small businesses may view multitasking by responding to electronic messages 24/7 as a positive, others can consider constant electronic mental downloading a detriment.
“There’s no doubt that many employees have become tethered to their electronic devices. Constantly interrupting our work to do something—anything else—disrupts our flow,” says Phil Simon, author of Message Not Received: Why Business Communication Is Broken and How to Fix It. “Great work comes from concentrated effort, not from snippets in between incessant emails and meetings.”
How Email Can Hamper Productivity
On the surface, checking email throughout the day seems like an excellent way to stay on top and productive, but the opposite actually occurs, notes Karen Leland, founder of the Sterling Marketing Group and author of Time Management In an Instant: Sixty Ways to Make the Most of Your Day.
“You’re hard at work on that top priority project when you get a sudden, uncontrollable desire to check your email,” Leland says. “Ten minutes later, you’re back to work on the project, but your former focus is gone. The essential problem with checking email throughout the day is that it amounts to a huge amount of self-interruption and multitasking, which impedes performance.”
Checking email repeatedly blocks something that you wouldn’t at first think of as a bad thing, adds Josh Davis, author of Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done. “We tend to check email at exactly the points when a little mind-wandering could profitably happen,” he says. “During mind-wandering, even for just a few minutes, a host of non-conscious processes occur that help you creatively solve complex problems, plan for the future and hold out for better choices. Constant email checking and the resulting required decisions drain your mental energy. The more we make decisions throughout the day, the harder we find it to muster the neural resources for further decision-making.”
—Randy Nelson, founder, Gold Dolphins, LLC
In addition to the decision fatigue from email, emotional exhaustion can creep in from dealing with excess electronic messaging, Davis believes. “Almost every email is associated with a social obligation—another person wants or needs something from you, and you can’t always come through, so you find it necessary to address these problems, which can be emotionally draining.”
Instituting an Email Ban
“If everyone knows there is an email moratorium, then there is no need to worry about the social obligations to respond quickly,” Davis says. “The length of the email ban for a specific small business will depend on the nature of the business. If your company requires a lot of writing or other individual creative work, you may want to have a day-long ban, while another company may find it most expedient to stop email for a couple of hours every day.”
Taking a break from email can be an eye-opening experience, Leland adds. “When you ban email for a day or week or even just a few hours, you can discover how much and how automatically you rely on it. A break from email use forces people to communicate face-to-face and by phone, which offers opportunities to forge stronger relationships.”
Improving Email Communication
Chances are, banning email for extended periods of time isn’t feasible in the operation of your small business, but there are steps you might take to improve the use of electronic messaging so that it supports productivity. Consider these tips:
- Stick to the facts. Remind employees to get to the point with emails and only include pertinent information.
- Encourage phone calls. “Institute a three-email rule,” Simon says. “After three emails, it’s time to talk. This discourages ineffective conversations via email, which serves as a valuable business function, but was never intended as a Swiss Army knife, because it doesn’t promote effective collaboration and discussion.”
Phone calls tend to be a highly productive alternative to email, agrees Davis. “Unless a paper trail is critical, there are social constructions in place that reduce the degree to which people are likely to waste each other’s time on nonsense when they actually talk. They will think just a little harder about their use of someone else’s time.”
- Batch email correspondence. To encourage productivity and allow employees to stick to their priorities, consider suggesting that they set aside certain times throughout the day to attend to email. “I find my most productive work times of the day are from 7 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., so I stay away from reading and answering emails at that time and do so during other less productive periods,” says Randy Nelson, who runs the coaching and consulting firm Gold Dolphins, LLC and is author of The Second Decision: the QUALIFIED entrepreneur.
Jason Womack suggests setting up an “out of office” reply for 30 minutes a day and tending to top priorities at that time. “My auto reply announces that I will be working on a project during that time and to call me if it is urgent,” says the productivity coach and author of Your Best Just Got Better: Work Smarter, Think Bigger, Make More. “I check my inbox once the 30 minutes is up. When you do such short-burst focus sessions, in addition to improving performance, you look like a productivity superstar to your colleagues while sending the message to customers that you are able to prioritize your workflow, which proves they can trust you. This also gives your vendors the message that you’re busy and need them to be as efficient as possible.”
- Institute an email policy. “Spelling out for employees when and when not to use email helps greatly,” Leland says. “Two specific times when it’s not a good idea to use email are for time-sensitive issues and delicate or potentially inflammatory topics. More emotional conversations rely on body language and tone of voice to get messages across. Email lacks tone or has tone that can be easily misunderstood. If the topic is sensitive, it’s best addressed with an in-person or telephone response.”
- Wait. If a response to a message can wait an hour or two or even until your next in-person meeting, then wait, advises Womack. “Instead of emailing someone just to get it out of your head and into their system, avoid interrupting the person more than necessary.”
Being available should not be equated with being obligated, Leland adds. “Just because an email enters your inbox does not mean you are obligated to read it right away. You have a choice.”
Read more articles about productivity.
A version of this article was originally published on November 27, 2015.