Email overload: can you cope with it?

Email overload: can you cope with it?

An interesting observation I can make about the victims of email overload: many of them think they’re doing just fine.

That is, they certainly feel the pain of having to endlessly try to clear their inbox, but they accept this state of affairs – and because they are still alive and active and manage to get their work done, they think it’s OK – this is the way things are supposed to be, and they can cope with it, so why complain?

Of course I’m happy for them that they are content with their lot, but I think many of these folks are in a denial born of ignorance. They think they’re alive and active and manage to get their work done, but they aren’t, not fully.

They’re alive, obviously, but they’re actively shortening their life. The constant stress of the email rat race is taking a real toll – there is ample data that the stress is real, and stress is a voracious silent killer.

They are active – but with what? Spending 40% of your week on “doing email” is hardly activity to be proud of. I mean, consider a top athlete who spends their days training and competing, and their friend who dedicates full time to reading sports magazines. Both are active, right?!…

And lastly, they are getting their work done, but make no mistake – they’re getting only a fraction done of the work they could, and should, have been doing. Here the research data is outright scary: people distracted by endless interrupts – which is what much of the email overload consists of – are working like zombies. They innovate less. They suck at problem solving. They make poor decisions. They make more mistakes. In short, they are not merely less productive (which is certainly the case) – they are also dumber. A lot.


With all this hidden downside, how can these people be so resigned to this destructive work mode? Part of it must be that their boss has no problem with it: managers are just as likely to accept the current work modality as given. Another reason may be that they don’t have the time to contemplate what they’re doing to themselves and figure alternatives – like Winnie the Pooh coming down the stairs. But there may be another reason: as the years go by the generation of baby boomers that knew life before email is gradually retiring, and the younger Gen X and Gen Y workers may never have known another way than the tech-dominated current one. I myself – a boomer, and a happy one – do remember those early days of my career: we used to come to work in the morning, work all day, and go home in the late afternoon to a pleasant evening with family, hobbies and leisure. During the day we did process the correspondence we got in our physical mail slot: a handful of interoffice memos in brown envelopes, that took us maybe half an hour each day. The rest of the day, we worked.

So what can you do, other than invent a time machine and go back to earlier times? You can – and should – adopt solutions to your information overload, be they technology tools that help prioritize and manage your inbox to free you for better things, or organizational efforts to change norms and improve interaction in your team. Or both – whatever will make a real dent in the debilitating overload of communications. Or you can do nothing and continue to tell yourself that everything is fine. Your choice!

Nathan Zeldes
Nathan Zeldes

Nathan Zeldes is a globally recognized thought leader in the search for improved knowledge worker productivity. After a 26 year career as a manager and principal engineer at Intel Corporation, he now helps organizations solve core problems at the intersection of information technology and human behavior.

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