How To Beat Your Email Habit

Last Updated Sep 11, 2008 11:26 AM EDT

Email's supposed to be a productivity tool. In fact, it interrupts us all the time, breaking our concentration and throwing us off course. Just recovering from those interruptions and remembering what we were doing beforehand costs an entire workday every week, according to study cited in this interesting piece, Breaking the email compulsion. The article pulls together several salient studies that suggest email is a time waster for workers. In fact, it's kind of like chocolate for the brain. We click the 'check messages' button and get a treat!

The consultant who wrote this article, Suw Charman-Anderson, has some general tips (let's call them nudges, after the new book) that I think smart companies can apply:

  • Encourage workers to schedule daily email time, and otherwise turn it off. She suggests first thing in the morning and late in the afternoon.
  • Don't try to establish email free days. Companies like Intel and Deloitte have tried them. They don't work.
  • Turn off email alerts.
  • Change your email reader so it gives you the subject and the first couple of lines of email, so you can gauge its importance.
  • For things that need quick responses and warrant interruptions, use instant messaging, or Twitter. Or try the phone (remember that office productivity tool?).
  • Use wikis and blogs to collaborate, or have informal discussions on a topic.
None of these are perfect -- wikis, for instance, require people to open up a new window someplace, and even that simple act adds enough friction to the workday that some people would rather just stick with email. Twitter's constant tweeting can be maddening. After I started using it, my phone buzzed and chirped so frequently that I stuck it in a drawer away from my office (I work at home). Then I missed phone calls, so I went into Twitter and started following most people on the Web, not my phone.

Still, every time I read about such email studies, it reminds me I don't need email on all the time. I've had email off for the last hour. The office is strangely peaceful and my brain feels focused. I'm getting a lot done.

  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.