Email and time

watch by Darren Hester
NYT: Businesses Fight the Email Monster They Helped Create:
[Via 43 Folders –]

Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast –
Is Information Overload a Billion Drag on the Economy? – Bits – Technology – New York Times Blog
If you’ve seen the video of my Inbox Zero talk at Google, you may recall the moment when a few attendees start mentioning the hundreds of internal email messages they receive (and send) in a given day. I still remember, because I almost fainted.

Whenever I hear these and similar stories, the same question always comes to mind: “What does a company get out of its employees spending half their day using an email program?” Well, apparently, it’s a question a lot of people are starting to ask. Including Google.

A story in today’s New York Times covers Sili Valley’s new interest in curbing unnecessary interruptions and helping stem the flow of endless data.

Intel and other companies are already experimenting with solutions. Small units at some companies are encouraging workers to check e-mail messages less frequently, to send group messages more judiciously and to avoid letting the drumbeat of digital missives constantly shake up and reorder to-do lists.

A Google software engineer last week introduced E-Mail Addict, an experimental feature for the company’s e-mail service that lets people cut themselves off from their in-boxes for 15 minutes.

A few more stats for you:

A typical information worker who sits at a computer all day turns to his e-mail program more than 50 times and uses instant messaging 77 times…

I’d also draw your attention to this infographic illustrating data points from recent studies on “workers’ efficiency at information-intensive businesses.” 28% of a typical worker’s day is spent on:

Interruptions by things that aren’t urgent or important, like unnecessary e-mail messages — and the time it takes to get back on track.

As with almost all new technologies, people will have to work things out. Too many people treat email as an immediate task. They will leave off of the phone call they are on to answer an email.

I’m going to talk about the supposed need to respond to relevant emails sent by colleagues. The almost spamming that can occur with email, where a tremendous amount of time is spent wading through a plethora of irrelevant emails (say 300 or more), is a discussion for another time.

My view has always been that if someone at my organization wants an answer immediately, they can track me down personally, whether I am in my office or not. The next level, a quick answer, can be gotten with a phone call. If I am out, they can leave a message. An email message is the lowest level.

This is because email is supposed to remove time and place from a response. Face-to-face is restricted in both time and space. Now and both of us in my office. Phones remove place but still determine time. Now but where we are does not matter. Email should only be for messages where the time and the place are unimportant. At a time and location of my choosing.

If someone sends me a time sensitive email, they can call me up and tell me to respond to the email <grin>

If I am involved in something, such as my own project, here is the order of priorities that will require me to break off:

  1. Immediately deal with anyone entering my office that needs something done NOW
  2. Let any phone call go to voicemail. I can check the voicemail when it is convenient for ME. If it is important they will leave me one or track me down personally (see 1)
  3. Nothing else

When I send emails, they either are in response to a previous email, an answer or question for a colleague, an acknowledgement of some event, or some general information to spread (Hey, have you read this article in Nature?) If I need an answer now, I call.

If they are out, I leave a voicemail and may send an email just to make sure there is another route. If it needs an immediate response and I can not find them, sending an email does not absolve me of my responsibility to find an answer. “Well, I sent them an email” does not solve the problem if it needs an answer now!

I usually do check my email several times a day but only when it is convenient for me. I control when I respond. One of the benefits of Web 2.0 tools is that they remove the need for people to simultaneously occupy the same place at the same time for any information to be exchanged. Place and/or time are independent. A blog or a wiki disperses information in this way. Email should also but too many people use it for other purposes.

I need to control when my distractions distract me. Too many people let email interrupt what they are doing. They just can not seem to leave it alone if they know an unopened email is present. Heck, I’ll even sometimes let a voicemail sit there for a time before checking it. I control when I answer it and will not let that blinking red light determine my response.

I do recognize I am strange in many ways and not typical. However, at least I ‘feel’ like I have some control over these distractions.

Try this exercise once or twice a year: Go for a week without wearing or having access to a watch. Many people freak without being able to determine NOW just what time it is. But I find it very relaxing in a Zen kind of way.

Because, it turns out that you can easily stay on top of the time without a watch. Timekeepers are found throughout our culture, either wall clocks, TVs, computers or even cell phones (My son no longer wears his watch. He uses his cell phone to tell time.) In fact, cell phones and computers are much better timekeepers because they are accurately updated, usually to atomic clocks.

But this exercise really does demonstrate how few events are dependent on the exact time. Sure there are events where knowing the time is important but it is educational to find out how few these really are.

Email is like a wristwatch. Only check it when absolutely needed. Life is much easier when either time or email can be ignored. I have more important things to do with my 28%!

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