How E-Mail Kills Your Productivity

In 2005, psychiatrist at  King’s College in England administered IQ tests to three groups:  the first did nothing but perform the IQ test, the second was distracted by e-mail and ringing phones, and the third was stoned on marijuana.  Not surprisingly, the first group did better than the other two by an average of ten points.  The e-mails, on the other hand, did worse than the stoners by an average of six points.

The study concluded that there is a psychological switching of gears that can require up to 45 minutes to resume a major task that has been interrupted.   Jonathan Spira‘s and Joshua Feintuch’s paper on the subject (“The Cost of Not Paying Attention:  How Interruptions Impact Knowledge Worker Productivity“) showed how 28% of the standard 9-5 day is consumed by such interruptions, and that 40% of people interrupted go on to a new task without finishing the one that was interrupted.  This is how we end up with 20 open e-mails and tasks with none of them completed at the end of the day.

Most people, including myself, consider it a good thing to be connected to the world in real time with iPhones, iPads, and laptop PCs.  But sometimes I pine for the past, and how we all managed to survive in the days when Blackberries were things we ate (as opposed to the current day trend of our Blackberries eating us).  Many a time I have been on a roll, working on an idea, and get interrupted by an e-mail that I really didn’t need to read.  The idea gets lost, and I have to start all over again.

Over the years, as I saw my employees and colleagues consumed by the distractions of instant communication, I came up with three simple rules I asked them to follow:

  • An e-mail is for sharing information We have all been victims of perhaps the worst invention of modern times:  the abused “Reply All” and “CC:” functions of e-mail.  In the future, please consider sending e-mails on status updates, flight schedules, meeting agendas, and other things that do not warrant discussion.  The best e-mails are “one way.”  If it turns into a 12 e-mail chain of replies (or even worse, Reply All), then it should not have been an e-mail.  If you find that the e-mail you sent gets more than a few back-and-forth replies, please kill the chain (or at least remove me from it) and turn the writing campaign into a phone call.
  • Phone calls are for discussing information.   This is the corollary to #1 above.  We are at our best when we are batting around our ideas, taking the best of our experiences and combining them into a unified and cohesive agreement.  When it all comes down to the essentials of business, it is about people and relationships.  I’d rather talk to you than type to you.  I am reachable from 7 AM to midnight every day of the week, and would love to talk to any of you and solve the issue in a ten-minute phone call rather than three days of back-and-forth e-mails.
  • Solve the issue with the fewest number of people possible.   This is not a culture of finding blame.  We are very fortunate to work for a great company with great people who all want to help each other succeed.  We will all make mistakes, and we are all smart enough to learn from them.  So in the interest of operational efficiency, please start e-mails and phone calls with the fewest people possible to solve the problem.  There is no need for a “CYA” mentality here – if we can’t solve the problem in a small group, we can always escalate things up the ladder.  If you don’t feel you are getting a voice, any of you are welcome and encouraged to go over my head.

The first time I sent out these three simple rules, I noticed a measurably smaller inbox. Lots of people commented that they too were tired of the Reply All Syndrome and endless e-mail chains of back and forth.  When they pushed the same set of rules to their own employees, they were pleasantly surprised at how much more they were accomplishing when distractions are minimized.  Even better, their employees were solving their own problems instead of always looking for the boss to do so.

Old habits die hard though, and I notice after about six months that people stop following the three rules I sent them.  My solution was to send out my original e-mail every 6-12 months, and also to send it to new employees as they were hired.  I still struggle with the temptation to react to a buzzing text message or a chiming e-mail like anyone else, but I’m getting better.  I hope you will give these three rules a try, and please let me know through this website how things have worked out for you.

Leave a comment


  1. Key up the posts Jack, great stuff. Look in your inbox for more details 😉

  2. scottmoe297

     /  April 30, 2012

    This is really cool. It’s really pretty simple to understand, and makes a lot of sense. It’s funny how often I use email as some prolonged conversation that requires that I check it even more often, when a 5min phone call would suffice.

  3. Patrick F. Donaldson

     /  May 5, 2012

    Wise words, as usual. Three simple elements, plus an unequivocal recognition that we are not victims of the tools of technology, ie., e-mails, etc. and must exercise personal discipline and not become consmed by distractions. Thanks again for your sage advice.


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