Is email killing productivity and reducing your IQ?

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: March 27th 2013

The ping of a new email catches my attention as I sit in a meeting with a colleague. The two of us are in his office and we’re talking about an issue that needs resolution. As we talk, behind and over his right shoulder, I can see on his monitor that the ping means that he has a new email.  In the familiar Outlook window, I can see that his highlighted cursor has dropped down one notch and while he was up to date on his email, our conversation and this recent ping has him one down. It is the start of a familiar pattern.

Email floodThroughout our chat, I continue to hear that familiar “you’ve got email” ping and I notice his cursor falling lower and lower on his screen as the email piles up. By the end of our talk, he has a completely new page of unread emails – the cost of taking time to speak to someone rather than attending to the non- stop onslaught of email that we face every day. I leave his office wondering about email – is it really “helping” us in our daily work? Does it actually improve communication? Does it actually increase productivity or is the daily tsunami of electronic communications leaving us drowning in a river of information while gasping for the breath of true personal connections in the workplace and quality time with our colleagues on issues that matter and need our undivided attention?

In most of the meetings I now attend or chair, almost everyone will be using an electronic device during the meeting. It would be naive to think that they are all taking copious notes, no, they are time splicing their attention between the topic of conversation,  their email, and sometimes twitter or other social media channels. Perhaps this is effective use of time but we are educators and we know the research on multitasking which is…it cannot be done. It’s true, you can chew gum and walk at the same time but you cannot do a multiplication problem and write a poem simultaneously. The myth of multitasking has long been revealed. I much prefer the term time splicing where we devote thin slices of our attention between multiple tasks hoping that we can weave the threads together. The end result, as you might imagine and as supported by research, is that when our attention is divided our productivity drops and each of the tasks we juggle gets shortchanged beyond the simple loss of time.

Multitaskers have long been thought of as gifted organizers of time. We marvel at their ability to juggle multiple inputs. However, when researchers delve into these gifts, they discover the gift is empty. Ophir, one of the lead researchers at Stanford’s Communications between Humans and Interactive Media Lab stated about multitaskers “We kept looking for what they’re better at, and we didn’t find it.” Research not only shows that multitasking doesn’t work, it actually shows that it may impair brain functioning. So this is not something you want to be proud of or wish to see in children.

How much do people split their attention and time? A recent infographic that I found suggests that 67% of people emailed during a date, 45% while in a movie and 33% while at church. Researchers at Kings College in London suggest that “constant exposure to e-mail and other multitasking-friendly technology temporarily lowers IQ by 10 points–or about as much as skipping a night’s sleep.”

On more than one occasion, I have asked everyone at a meeting to go tech-less. Blackberries and iPhones/iPads down. If you ever want a strong reaction from a group, just try it. People are not only lost without their devices which have become more like appendages than accessories, they are deeply offended by the thought of someone who would dare to cut them off even for 15 minutes.

I do not believe for a minute that this time-spliced multitasking phenomena may change but I think it is worthy of a workplace conversation. For one example, if everyone is on technology most of the day why are we asking them to “come in to the office”? With environmental sustainability an issue and looking for cost savings around every corner, why would we not consider working from home as a serious workplace option? Avoid the commute, stay home to be available for family if needed, save the environment, sleep longer without having to prepare for what is likely 1-2 hours a day on the road.

As we are rethinking education we need to also start rethinking the workplace in general. As educators we criticize the industrial model of learning with students proceeding through strict rotations of blocks in discreet subject areas yet, in office structures, people still come to work, fit into their cubicle, and begin their 8 hour day connected to a computer. Given that we are more connected to each other than ever before do we really need to be sitting next to each other all day long too? Perhaps as we think about 21st Century Learning, we can also think about 21st Century workplaces. Places where work happens when you want, where you want and in a time suitable to your needs. Of course this couldn’t work for all jobs, but perhaps it could for many.

For many executives and managers, we spend time meeting to resolve issues, plan and organize. If we recognize that today’s structures of meetings have become largely ineffective, then why would we continue to meet in the same way we have for a century? The only difference is that people have devices and since we know meetings are typically largely ineffective, perhaps it should come as no surprise that people are opting out more than ever and spending a lot of meeting time checking email and working remotely.

In more than one blog article I have commented on the effectiveness of meetings. Given the lack of attention by participants, we either need to design and develop better meeting structures, use the technology itself in different ways, or abandon structures that we know are ineffective. However, one of the main reasons that people check email during meetings is simply to help deal with the volume of daily mail. If  most of your day is travelling or in meetings, working face to face with students or parents, then email piles up and awaits your attention.

What about ways to handle the never ending email barrage? Recently, I was lucky enough to have someone spend time with me on Outlook and its functionality to handle email and here were some tips handed to me:

  • use the “follow up function” – a very quick calendar reminder for those emails that needed to have action by a specific date;
  • use File – to put emails with agenda items for meetings, important things to do or reminders about issues
  • establish quick rules for specific routine tasks – this makes organization easy.

However, the more I think about the pressures of email, perhaps the pressure to answer emails and the sheer volume is leaving people with what they feel is little choice other than to spend meeting time answering emails. If you do not manage to get to your emails during a day of meetings and travel, then you are left with at least an hour homework to catch up on email. So the pressure is to somehow find time during the day, in any way you can, to answer your emails. It is small wonder we see people emailing at intersections, at dinner tables, while waiting in lines and, yes, during meetings.


In any organization I have ever worked, when you ask employees for one area of improvement, communications is always on the list. Love it or hate it, email is a major part of any organizations communications framework. So if this is the case, how often do we take the time to discuss our etiquette, our strategy, our skills and our goals with using email? Here are some simple questions for you to consider within your organization:

  • what email groups do you have and are all members updated and necessary?
  • what etiquette have you discussed on simple things like reply all or replying when cc’d?
  • when are people cc’d and what does it mean to be cc’d?
  • do you ever approve of using bcc? If so under what conditions?
  • how are you using your email signature features to identify/celebrate/promote your organization and its values?
  • have you discussed the passing of jokes over email?
  • what is your employee awareness of FOI legislation and emails?
  • who has security levels to read all emails?
  • what policies exist for those with high level security access to email?
  • have you trained all employees on the features of email systems to support productivity (e.g. flagging, setting reminders and follow up times, writing rules for sorting)?

The purpose of this blog is to hopefully stimulate some conversation about email within your organization. If research tells us that some of our practices are actually hurting us and in our gut we all know it, then perhaps it’s time to step back, don’t hit send for a moment and simply take a half an hour at some point to put down your devices, take a breath and have a good old fashioned face to face chat about how email is, or is not, working for the organization and for enhancing communications. It could be a refreshing break to improve the likely thousands or tens of thousands of messages flying through the bitsphere in any given moment. Perhaps it is a chance to actually chart a new communications course through your organization. A course that you can share with others, maybe even over email.

On a final hypocritical note, I checked my own email 3 times during the first draft of this blog. Pavlov would be proud.

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