E-Mail: How a Silent, On-demand, Invisible Inbox Can Interrupt You

August 23, 2007 at 1:18 pm | Posted in Attention Management, interruption science | Leave a comment

According to Madbury (N.H.)-based NFI Research, two-thirds of 228 senior executives and managers who responded to a recent survey say e-mail is the most prominent workplace disruption, followed by crisis of the day (42%), personal interruptions (31%), and changing priorities (30%).

This survey, quoted in a BusinessWeek article on interruptions with the self-explanatory title “Why You Can’t Get Any Work Done“, states that a majority of the senior execs and managers they surveyed thought e-mail is disruptive. How odd that an asynchronous technology (one that is non-real-time and queues messages for delayed response) can be blamed for interrupting people! Phone calls, particularly with no caller ID or answering machine, can certainly interrupt you since telephony is synchronous. But can a technology like e-mail that stores messages until you decide to look at them really be a prominent workplace disruption?

Not literally – you can always turn off “toasts” or bells if they are bothering you. Rather, this is a clear indication that it is the expectations and behavior, not technology, that is the issue. While it’s cathartic to blame “e-mail” (with the unstated assumption it’s the technology), we really have to blame “e-mail volume and response expectations” or “e-mail addiction” or “e-mail etiquette”; all of which are distinctly human issues.

And before anyone draws an analogy to the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” quip, we’re talking about a technology whose main purpose truly is social and benevolent. Therefore outlawing e-mail (or outlawing concealed e-mail – in the form of Blackberrys) wouldn’t solve the problem. After all, when e-mail is outlawed, only outlaws will have e-mail.

People feeling overwhelmed by email cannot solve the problem overnight, but there are avenues to explore to help with the problem:

  • Use more appropriate communication vehicles when possible – RSS feeds and virtual workspaces such as discussion groups can get some recurring messages out of email
  • Turn off interrupting features of email (toasts and bells on the e-mail system and other devices your forward your e-mail to)
  • Set aside an hour one day to learn the attentional capabilities of your email system. There are probably more features than you realize to automatically sort through email, tag it for followup, and follow threads of conversations
  • Where culturally appropriate, let senders of inappropriate emails gently know their emails about the fantasy football league that you’re not in or an argument with the whole department cc’d are not needed
  • Determine an e-mail checking pattern that works for you. For some this is beginning of day, end of day, and before and after lunch. For others it is whenever they feel they need a break from their task. For still others, it’s catch-as-catch can between meetings and during brief stops in the office

I’d better stop this interruption (caused by reviewing my RSS feeds incidentally) and get back to work … but I have more tips in my posting on Personal Attention Management.

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