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The hidden costs of too much email

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

(MoneyWatch) According to McKinsey, the average worker spends 28% of the work week on email. That is more than a full working day. I'm not sure I believe McKinsey's numbers -- it's a consulting group, after all, and has to present problems in order to sell solutions. But I am struck by how many people I meet who complain about the time that email demands.

There could be several explanations. Too many emails result when we don't quite know what to ask for, how to ask or who to ask. In large corporations, undoubtedly too much correspondence derives from copying everything to everyone as a fail-safe defense. And that's before all of those annoying messages saying you have Facebook messages.

What that means is that we should really start to think about email as a cost. Think about it: ten emails, copied to six people who have to read and either trash or respond to it uses up an hour, maybe two hours of working time. Think of that at a consulting hourly rate; even if you don't charge on the scale of McKinsey, you've just spent a lot.

McKinsey likes to talk about the untapped potential of social media because that's how they sell their expertise. But we need also to consider the unconsidered cost of social media: waste, distraction, a lack of focus, broken concentration. Almost everyone I know worries, consciously or unconsciously, about the email piling up in their Inbox. That's why they constantly check their smartphones when in meetings, driving, at meals. All of those times when they might benefit from reflection or actual social interaction are spoiled by the constant attempt to keep the email at bay.

I don't think anyone should be spending 28% of their time on email -- and my business depends upon it. But I try confine the times I deal with it to the beginning and end of the day. And I find that if I send less, I get less. Sometimes the law of diminishing returns is quite wonderful.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.