The bell sounds woke me. They were continuous and getting louder by the second.
I raised my head and there they were – dozens of them! Then hundreds! Falling from the virtual clouds around me into MS Outlook like a deluge of rain filling bucket after bucket.
Then there were thousands! I tried to reach up, to shut Outlook down, but my hands were bound behind me in a tight jacket of some kind. I writhed and jerked, but couldn’t budge.
They kept coming, like a flash flood at first, then a tsunami. I tried to kick away from my desk, but my legs were bound as well. I slumped in horror as e-mail after e-mail fell from the heavens into my laptop and filled my eyes with unending misery.
Some were spam, some from colleagues and peers with urgent requests, some were from my superiors with triple-urgent requests (with at least 13 exclamation points each). E-mails that I thought I had already dealt with and either filed away or deleted downloaded yet again, in triplicate.
In the lower left corner of the laptop screen, an old MTV video started – Quiet Riot’s Bang Your Head (Mental Health).
And then the unthinkable happened – the e-mails stopped with the last one downloading and opening on its own.
It read as follows: If you ever want to have a life again, you have 30 minutes to answer every single one of these messages, thoughtfully, logically, respectfully, without any emotive reactions whatsoever. And you have to do it while strapped in that straight jacket. Good luck.
You’ve got to be friggin’ kidding me?
Another e-mail downloaded. Tick-tock, it read.
I shrieked as the morning sun spilled through my office window…
It’s like that, right? All of us “dump and run” and then we’re held hostage every day by the very communication tool that was supposed to free us over two decades ago. Even longer ago for some of us; I went to college and worked at San Jose State University in the late 1980s and we had fully functional e-mail and intranets; most universities did way back then.
But in recent times? It’s broken bad (and even if you didn’t watch that show, I’m sure you’ll agree anyway). Really, really broken bad. In fact, according to research from a few years ago, e-mail overload can cost large companies as much as $1 billion a year in lost employee productivity. And the average “knowledge” professional today – basically anyone who sits at a desk – loses 2.1 hours of productivity every day to interruptions and distractions (according to Basex, an IT research and consulting firm).
Every time we’re interrupted, and every time we allow ourselves to be interrupted, it takes us 3-4 times the interruption to recover. And you thought it was bad enough working in an office with multiple people every day stopping by your “workspace” and asking if you’ve “gotta minute.”
How do we ever get anything friggin’ done around here?!? Constant in-person and e-mail interruptions that demand attention aren’t collaboration in action. Ever.
Come to think of it, though, it’s not the e-mail tools that hold us hostage, it’s all those colleagues, peers and superiors who do, those who dump and run. Especially our superiors who don’t value the old-fashioned phone call or face-time chat about whatever needs to be chatted about. Remember the bravery of being out of range?
My God, this is a big change management bugaboo, don’t you think?
Even e-mail productivity expert Marsha Egan grappled with that on the TalentCulture #TChat Show, acknowledging that it takes all of management buying in on using e-mail only for non-sensitive, non-urgent communications that don’t require immediate response.
Please, right? That’s a tall task for most companies today. But we, the individual contributors, can make a difference, even knowing that no matter how much we feel that e-mail is killing “world of work” productivity, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
And while our companies are losing worker productivity, we’re all extending the length of their workdays, going to the office on weekends, and checking our e-mail while on vacation because we can no longer manage the volume of communication that requires our attention – the bad daydream from above. This is how e-mail habits have become toxic to individuals and businesses alike.
Blech. But instead, why don’t we have a repetitively “productive” conversation around why and how unhealthy e-mail practices are sapping personal and business productivity, what you can do about it, and how much time you can reclaim for yourself and your business.
Hey, I took Marsha Egan’s E-mail Productivity Assessment, and this is what it told me:
Your e-mail habits need plenty of work. Here are some tips to get you started…
That was my incoming e-mail evaluation. The good news is that my outgoing e-mail score was much better. Either way, I highly recommend you take the assessment. And while you’re doing that, consider these two tips when dealing with e-mail toxicity:
- Don’t hold each other hostage. If you have an urgent request, please walk over and ask the person, or pick up the phone and ask the person (if you’re not in the same office). Or use instant messaging via your intranet (built around your people) or social media, or make a video call, or simply text the person. But stop dumping urgent e-mails and running, especially if you’re in a leadership position. The more we spiral and “bang our heads” with e-mail reactivity, the more we hold each other hostage, the more time we spend answering urgent e-mails, the more we don’t get anything done. Ever.
- And pace yourself. I’m completely guilty of the constant social media check-in, to continuously see what’s happening on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and more. A Facebook friend asked her “friends” recently what they do to stay productive. I responded by turning off Facebook, which I can’t do, so screw it. Sigh. But, the same goes for e-mail, at least for bigger chunks of the day when you’ve got projects due. Being a writer I should know better, and thankfully sometimes I do. Sometimes…which is why we should always block off our time when we’ve got to get stuff done – and that means turning off the e-mail and the social media.
Stop the madness, kids.