Friday, February 27, 2009

Basex blog - worth reading

I subscribe to the weekly Basex newsblast on information overload and other stuff relating to productivity in the modern economy. I commented on their blog recently. Worth a read.

Email management fragmentation - the problem persists

So here's the gig. The approach to addressing the modern problem of email management for the white collar worker boils down to the simple reality that people need to make a decision about their next actions resulting from having received an email and then acting upon or recording that next action for future attention. No more, no less. Scooting around You Tube on an email management search just now, I came across this video which is a neat tool and certainly of value but by no means the solution. Actually, its pretty indicative of products and services that simply miss the point.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Safe is boring....

I have read most books Seth Godin has written, and he excels himself here in this 17 minute presentation.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Getting the email monkey off your back

Email has an insidious grip on its users. It's time to take stock and give yourself a break. Acknowledge some realities!

  1. Acknowledge that there is no way anyone can actually deliver on all the requests made of them via email. There is no shame in not being 'perfect' when perfection is completely unachievable.
  2. Understand that less is more. Communicate, don't lecture, when composing emails.
  3. Recognise that everyone has this problem. No-one 'loves' email so don't feel guilty that this technology has gotten out of hand; it's hardly your fault. The solution is within you; you are not the cause of the problem.
  4. Change your attitude to email. It is not a panacea; it's a powerful communication tool – no more and no less. Use it; don't let it use you.
  5. Make the technology work for you. Identify the 10 standard things you consistently request or reply on, and create a signature template to supply the information you need to communicate (thank you's, responses to FAQs, admin requests etc.).


  6. Ditch, ditch, ditch. Why keep the electronic equivalent of every supermarket receipt, bus ticket, scribbled Post-it note or mildly interesting information flyer about some event you know you're never going to attend? Re-reading old emails over and over again adds nothing to your ability to turn them into productive output.


  7. Go to your inbox reluctantly. If something is uber-urgent you'll find out quickly enough when the person calls you. Treat each visit to the inbox as a distraction from your real work, and when you do go there triage all the mail you find, plan and organise the resulting work and then get back to the fun stuff that you're actually paid to do (no one's job description begins with 'spend 2-3 hours sending and receiving email').
  8. 'Always on' emailers usually ascribe more value to getting an email than actually doing something as a result of receiving it. Recognise email for what it is: almost always an interruption to something much more important that you could be doing. (Weekend Blackberry users take note: Why do you allow your employers to have you work for no pay outside of already extended business hours?)
  9. Recognise that there are only 10 things you can do with an email, and use the triage method to take the next action to make one of those decisions.
  10. Realise that most email is ephemeral. It is relevant only for a very short period of time and so can be dispensed with aggressively, either by planning the work, putting the email away or ditching it forever.
  11. Tell people you've changed your habits. Ask them to call you more; define when it's good for you to be contacted by mail; let them know how you'll handle emails, plan your work and schedule their responses, and tell them how your system works for you (a signature template is a good technique to use here). Set, then change, people's expectations, and then live your new email work style.
  12. Value your time properly. At work, it's all you've got and there's never enough of it. Recognise all of the time you are losing to email; your health, career and family will all benefit. Email has robbed you of your time; take it back.

Harold Taylor has identified five 'laws' or effective guidelines for maximising the use of time.

Parkinson's Law: Work expands to fill the time available for its completion (otherwise known as the 'I've got a deadline' law). Deadlines become a goal to work towards: the closer you get, the more effective with your time you become. Unrealistic deadlines cause stress.

The Pareto Principle: Also known as the 80/20 rule, meaning that 80% of your results are achieved from 20% of the things you do. It's therefore vital to focus your energies (and time) on the 20% of the work that delivers 80% of the results that progress you towards your goals.

Law of Diminishing Returns: The closer you get to finishing a task, the time taken to 'perfect it' increases exponentially. The extra value created by doing near-perfect work mostly doesn't justify the cost of the extra time spent on it. For most work, close enough is good enough.

Law of Comparative Advantage: Do only the work that is valued at your worth. Assign, delegate or outsource any task that can be done for less than you earn or desire to earn. Put a value on your time and be guided by that value in deciding whether or not to undertake a given task.

The Pleasure Principle: We avoid pain and seek immediate gratification. This explains why we procrastinate over the tough work and prioritise the fun work, even if the 80/20 rule is being broken. Recognise this and plan for it.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The guys who think tech will solve the email problem get it wrong again (who funds these companies?)

These guys are barking up the wrong tree. It never ceases to amaze me how these approaches to email management are conceived and then turned into a commercial offering. I have done a lot of work in this space (read til my eyes bled)


Research into email management possibilities has explored:


• A 1992 prediction that organisations would remove email systems once the negative effects on productivity were proven (1).


• The categorisation of email messages without imposing a requirement to create and maintain rules, allowing for prioritised email reading (2).


• Email perceived as a metaphor - namely (A) email is a filing cabinet that extends human information-processing capabilities, (B) email is a production line and locus of work co-ordination, and (C) email is a communication genre supporting social and organisational processes. (3)


• The role of the inbox in task management. Concluding that the inbox is a poor place to co-ordinate the management of tasks resulting from the email it contains, changes should be made to better support the tasks that result from email received. The author, a PhD candidate, concluded that getting control over email is 'a daunting task' (4).


• In 1997, the potential for the use of visualisation based on 'time of arrival' as the principal arrangement to display email (5). This research was carried forward in 2002, when it was concluded that visualisation of tasks across time aided the efficiency in finding information in messages related to tasks (6).


• Researchers from Microsoft in 2001 proposed new email viewing arrangements 'by threads' (which was introduced in Outlook 2003 (7)). Comprehensive work subsequently undertaken in 2005 (8), also involving Microsoft researchers, revealed that the concept of grouping emails by thread was not proving of great use. Out of a study population of 233 subjects, 27% didn't know of the 'group threads by conversation' feature inside Outlook, and 26% knew about it but didn't use it. Those who did use threads, according to the study, did so only 'occasionally'.


• Factors other than the importance of the message determine how people think about and handle their email. Email usage appears to reflect differences in how a message is perceived, depending on the personality of the reader, the demands of work and the relationship between the sender and the recipient (9).


• 2003 research concluded that the inbox experience should be rethought not in terms of messaging, but in terms of the activities that people are trying to accomplish (10).


In their comprehensive 2005 review of the existing email-related literature, Nicolas Ducheneaut and Leon Watts assessed the research undertaken to date and agreed that, whilst building an effective email system should draw down on empirical analysis and design, there had been little research to date into the theory surrounding email software interfaces.


They took the view that the theory that might best apply to the research would depend on the researchers' views as to what email actually is. Is it a communication tool? An archive? A collaboration tool? Is it a problem of attention allocation? They urge a real debate on what email actually is and does (11).


I concur. Once you clear away the smoke and mirrors of obfuscation caused by the nature of email technologies and the approach to their development, certain realities become self-evident:


• Email is merely a communication medium. It is the way most of our work now reaches us.


• The inbox is just the gateway to our working life.


• An email itself is not in or of itself 'work' per se. Our work is what we actually do. Email is merely communicating to us something we need to know or consider in relation to our work.


• As a discrete piece of information, each email can have a decision made in relation to it that will allow us to progress our work forward.


• Considered merely as a discrete piece of information, each email can be actioned according to the needs of our work, whereupon it becomes 'context-relevant'.


• In making a decision about each email and engendering a 'context-relevant' outcome from that decision-making exercise, we 'organise' our work and create a personal workflow-management methodology.


• There are only 10 'context-relevant' actions for any email received. These are:


i. Transfer to the deleted items folder.


ii. Prioritise and treat as 'super-urgent'.


iii. Delegate the work resulting from the email to another person.


iv. Keep email close to hand to accommodate a short-term filing requirement.


v. Put the email away for good to satisfy a long-time filing need.


vi. Associate the information with appointments and meetings you need to schedule or have previously scheduled.


vii. Associate the information with today's tasks to be completed.


viii. Associate the information with future tasks to be completed.


ix. Associate the information with, or as, a matter 'pending'.


x. Collect the information, categorise it according to need and then save it away for active reference.


• These 10 context-relevant actions occur as we 'triage' our email.


• In the context of Microsoft Outlook, the definitive triage outcomes are achieved through the adoption of the 4D decision-making methodology.



1 Pickering, J.M. & King, J.L. (1992). Hardwiring weak ties: Individual and institutional issues in computer mediated communication, Proc. CSCW 92, 356-361.


2 Balter, O., Sidner, C.L., (2002) Bifrost Inbox Organizer: giving users control over the inbox. ACM ISBN 1-158113-616-1/02/0010


3 Ducheneaut N., & Watts L.A. (2005). In Search of Coherence: A Review of Email Research. HCI, 2005, Vol 20, pp. 11-48


4 Gwizdka, J., Reinventing the Inbox – Supporting the Management of Pending Tasks in Email (2002). CHI, April 20-25 2002 Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA ACM 1-58113-454-1/02/0004


5 Yiu, K., Baeker, R.M, Silver, N., & Long, B. (1997). A Time-based Interface for Electronic Mail Management. In proceedings of HCI International '97. Vol 2 Elsevier, 19-22


6 Gwizdka, J., Future Time in Email – Design and Evaluation of a Task-based Email Interface (2002). c.f.


7 Venolia, G.D., Dabbish, L., Cadiz, J.J., Gupta, A. (2001) Supporting Email Workflow, Microsoft Technical Report MSR-TR-2001-88


8 Neustaedter, J., Berheim Brush, A.J., & Smith, M.A. (2005) Beyond 'From' and 'Received': Exploring the Dynamics of Email Triage CHI 2005, April 2-7, 2005 Portland, Oregon USA, ACM 1-59593-002-7/05/0004


9 Dabbish, L.A., Kraut, R.E., Fussell, S., & Kiesler, S. (2005). Understanding Email Use: Predicting Action on a Message. CHI 2005, April 2-7, 2005, Portland, Oregon, USA, ACM 1-58113-998-5/05/0004


10 Bellotti, V., Ducheaneat, N., Howard, M., Smith, I. (2003). Taskmaster: recasting email as task management. Palo Alto Research Center


11 Ducheneaut, N., Watts, L. (2005). In search of coherence: A review of Email Research. HCI, 2005, Vol 20, pp 11-48.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Will you ever be able to 4D your Gmail?

This great piece of work by Merlin Mann was presented to Google 18 months ago. The direction Gmail has taken since then (all kinds of silly whistles and bells to their email service) makes me believe they are still fast asleep when it comes to making email more productive. Not to worry - there is a workaround. Simply add your Gmail POP account details to your Outlook and run Orla on top. Bingo. Efficiency and productivity at a stroke.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Email Behaviour - the root of all evil?

I was scooting around the web the other day looking for new thought on ‘email-as-problem’ and came across this Forbes article from October 2008 which I missed the first time around. Ross Mayfield describes ‘Email Hell’ and does a reasonable job of essaying a bunch of well known tactics to get to grips with the problem. However, he misses the fundamental problem by a country mile.


It is the design of email clients which have cognitively patterned their users to perceive the communication technology we call email as ‘send-receive-file’ (the name of this blog strangely enough).

We figured out there are two aspects to email management in the modern age that need addressing.

Solving the problem before email hits your Inbox.

(2) Managing the activity that results after an email has actually hit your Inbox.

Dealing with the before issue is really all about well documented and debated first generation solutions which, in essence, involve:

(a) An enterprise-wide social contract as to how email technology should be used within an organisation.

This can be reflected in an Email Code of Conduct (one page, maybe 10 points) endorsed by the Board of Directors crafted after taking in the views of key corporate stakeholders and constituencies.

(b) Common sense.

The elements of the internal social contract are positively adopted by the individual and then incrementally extended beyond the walls of the enterprise; using;

(c) Simple software tools:

Such as appended signatures detailing how you wish to transact via email; auto-completion of email subject lines with 'at-a-glance' understanding of what is being communicated therein and Action Required, Background Information, Closing Observations - type, ordered segments to outgoing emails which request activity of others.

(d) A bit of training to give effect to the above:

Not much, it isn't rocket science: 4 or 5 hours is enough.

Solving the after issue is all about cognitive re-mapping of email technology users.

Consider: it took 70 years for the telephone to become a mainstream consumer technology, 15 years for the fax and 18 months for email. The essential design of email technologies (which have not significantly

changed since email arrived on the scene), has encouraged a cognitive mapping of Send-Receive-File in the people who use them (i.e. all of us).

This is a nonsense.

Even Bill Gates is on record as saying that email has spawned a generation of filing clerks

99.99% percent of all email messages carry no value after the content has been communicated. At the point of reading an email, it is what the reader needs to DO subsequently that becomes relevant. How is the resulting next action to be managed? What cognitive process should be followed to allow this next action to be achieved? How can the email technology be used to facilitate these facets?

The answer lies in the 4Ds: Ditch, Deal, Delegate, Decide.

Check out our one-minute overview of the 4D process.

Thus, the challenge is to cognitively remap email users:

OUT: Send-Receive-File IN: Ditch-Deal-Delegate-Decide

This is a people-focussed, not technology-focused, activity. Moving from the Send-Receive-File paradigm involves three things:

1) A new software environment which drives the 4Ds.

2) Low-impact, high-value learning to transition to the 4Ds, guided by the software.

3) Proof that real value is being created by having made this change.

In Orla, we have developed a program which ties this solution to the after issue all together. Using a simple software reconfiguration of Outlook (via a plug-in) and a total of no more than 4 hours of personal training in the corporate environment over the course of 21 days, the after issue can be readily and definitively solved. Through the use of the custom designed Tmail feature, Orla also provides the software tools needed to address the before issue too.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Why bother taming the email tiger?

In the final analysis, the need to tame the email tiger boils down to a desire to increase the value of an enterprise. Value drivers such as improved worker productivity and effectiveness, employee satisfaction, knowledge management and a mitigation of legal risk all ultimately impact on the bottom line.

In the case of email software designs, technology has over-promised and under-delivered. The interface between the user and the technology is where 'email-as-problem' is solved, with the 'decision crunch' directing how the balance of the information infrastructure is designed and configured. The 4D decision-making methodology we developed at Orla initiates and then guides this process.

Until now, such a decision-making capability has been conspicuously absent from the Outlook / Notes / GroupWise trio of software clients universally deployed by modern enterprises. These softwares, it is submitted, were designed from an engineering-centric perspective as opposed to the standpoint of the workflow-management needs of the average worker.

In his seminal book The Trouble With Computers, (1) Thomas Landauer argued that the billions of dollars that US companies have invested in information technology systems have yielded only very modest results due to the design flaws caused by the gap in the mentality of software engineers and the intuition of the normal person who is expected to use their products. An example of this can be found in the Alt-F4 command as a 'natural' way for someone to turn off their computer programme.

In the 14 years since Landauer's book was published, email has become the primary communication genre and the problem continues.

In a desperate bid to try to keep on top of this growing problem, managers, who have traditionally found it difficult to assess 'mind tools' such as software and information-management products, have relied almost universally on vendor promises rather than on an objective assessment of utility.

Clifford Stoll calls this 'snake oil'.(2)

There are proven, cost-effective ways to achieve significant productivity gains from information technology – all that is required is a user-centric design that delivers real value at the individual level. If software were more intuitive and easier to use, people could spend more time actually doing their jobs. Landauer predicts that if every software programme were designed for usability, productivity within the service sector would rise by 4-9% annually. As Mr Landauer says, computers are wonderfully powerful devices, but their producers and users must learn to harness them more effectively.

1 Landauer, Thomas K. (1995). The Trouble With Computers. MIT Press.

2 Stoll, C. (1996). Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway. Reed Business Information

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A guru speaks (I think)

The venerable Mr Allen overengineers a very simple subject, his own ideas about next action decision making and putting stuff away where you'll be able to find it again. His best selling book Getting Things Done is certainly readable, but this talk to the chappies at Google wanders about and had me lost about 5 mins in. Snakes? Karate Punches? Dead Batteries? Psychic RAM? And are distractions really "mismanaged commitments"? What the hell is 'bouldnerness' David? That said, he is right on the money in his key message, namely, that technology and systems will never replace human cognition and that systems merely serve the purpose of freeing up the intuitive capabilities of the mind to determine what must happen next. If you have read Getting Things Done, the GTD process is positioned as methodology neutral, meaning that the GTD approach can be undertaken using any technique or technology. My company's product, Orla, is, needless to say, fully compliant with the GTD concept.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Reply to All (and everyone else while you are at it)

Disclosure: the Post which follows is rife with self interest. Screenshot left:
So the company that put TV viewing habit black boxes on the top of tens of thousands of homes in the English speaking world (Nielson, who else) have finally cottoned on to a key cause of email pollution – the Reply All button.
This statement of principle and logical step forward to curb the excessive tendencies of their workforce to disengage their brains, waste their colleagues' valuable time in irrelevant communications and generally to cover their backsides should be town cried from the top of the highest building in every city in the world that runs on email bio-fuel.
Hurrah, hurrah.
Instead of being top dollar handout 'stimulated' by President Obama and Premier Kevin Rudd in their efforts to get the economy moving through the introduction of new efficiencies, poor Nielson gets lambasted by others who have no real answer beyond the tired old refrain 'train 'em, train 'em, train 'em'.
Guys, where have you been for the last 15 years? Don't you know that training basically doesn't work?
If it did, there wouldn't be a problem, would there?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

This is what happens when you think it through for yourself

In a Smartbiz article, Brian Murphy discusses the five most common email-management mistakes that businesses are making today:

  1. Believing it is feasible to run your business without some form of email-management system.

  2. Destroying email by auto purges or mailbox caps. This contravenes record-keeping policies and obligations across many legal compliance and business risk-management fronts.

  3. Using backups as an archive. The problem with this approach is that un-indexed email records are difficult and expensive to search, especially when the request for such records is typically mission- or business-risk-critical.

  4. Assuming that existing document-management systems are an acceptable technology to handle email archiving. The volume and indexing challenges for email archiving across an enterprise are substantially different from standard document-management challenges.

  5. Implementing an email retention policy that was optimized for paper. Email is not paper. The classification processes used for paper simply don't work with email because:

  • The sheer volume of email exchanged makes it impractical to classify everything;
  • Everyone uses email;
  • The administration of email isn't easily delegated, and
  • There's an almost infinite number of possible classification criteria, making it impractical for end users to classify all of their messages.

Email training - bah humbug!

The challenges of ‘email-as-problem’ in the modern workplace are well understood. Many training methods have been consistently tried since the scale of the issue raised its head more than 10 years ago. However, since ‘email-as-problem’ is caused by technology, a crucial part of the solution must be based in technology. Without technology to enable the change to the good, most email-training initiatives fail to deliver long-lasting meaningful outcomes, as they ultimately stand or fall on changing people’s behaviour.

Not unexpectedly, the change-management challenge rears it head and stands in the way of universal success.

With email rapidly becoming an all-consuming problem for both workers and the enterprises they serve, email can be said to have gone far beyond the realms of a ‘Killer App’ and taken on the qualities of a ’Zombie App. The pressures of time,(1) incumbent investments in non-performing technologies, (2) senior management reluctance to recognise email as a significant issue to be addressed (3) and the perennial challenge of change (4) all conspire to make ‘email-as-problem’ an intractable dilemma that all-too-often falls into the ‘too hard’ basket.

Focused, comprehensive user training in the effective use of email has been shown, on occasion, to bear significant fruit. The key here is focused - most email training doesn't come up to snuff.

Dr. Monica Seeley, CEO of Mesmo Consultancy, is a change specialist based in the United Kingdom. She develops email charters and tailored workshops for companies seeking to improve their workflow-management processes. She also writes for the Times of London from time to time. Here’s an example of how the approach she adopted has brought about improvements in email management: (5)

In 2004, a UK construction company was seeking assistance in getting to grips with ‘email-as-problem’. An internal change-management programme was created, called ‘Easy Email’ as a distinctive brand. The programme was delivered enterprise-wide to a dispersed and mobile workforce of several hundred people, involving optional training and an intensive internal marketing campaign.

Brought about as a result of widespread internal complaints about staff spending too much time on email, with their inboxes always full, Dr. Seeley’s focus groups revealed that:

  • Email volume was too great.
  • Attachment sizes were problematic.
  • People were using email to ‘get the monkey off their backs’.
  • Unrealistic expectations of an immediate response were de rigueur.
  • Emails were preferred to talking.
  • Notions of compliance were not a key consideration in the psyche of the workforce.

The ‘Easy-Mail’ programme involved an Outlook fitness check; the crafting of an email best-practice user guide; workshops and online tips and tricks for effective email management. The programme was wrapped in an email charter called CUSTOMS (Communicate clearly, Use attachments with care, Stay within the law, Think of the recipient, Organise your time at your inbox, Master the software, Select the right way to communicate).

The programme was specifically branded and aggressively marketed internally. It involved office posters, comprehensive information packs for each person, a pocket-sized CUSTOMS guide, stickers, a calendar with a ‘tip per month’ and a copy of the slide presentation used at the workshops. The intention was to make it fun as well as part of daily work.

Out of 1,000 employees, 400 staff participated, 65% attended the optional workshops and 75% returned the surveys. All respondents reported that the time spent learning was worthwhile and that they would each be doing at least one thing differently, confirming that a change in email behaviour was intended by those responding.

Three months later, informal feedback revealed that the initiative had reduced the number of times per day people felt they needed to check email, reducing stress levels and some of the pressure around email. Additional benefits included improved time-use effectiveness and inculcating a new approach to email and methods of communicating.

’Easy-Mail’ continued after the formal programme had ended, taking in continuing hints and tips and ‘presence’ inside the firm.

This programme highlighted the technical issues surrounding email overload, so internal systems adjustments were carried out, leading to the removal of inbox quotas and the implementation of centralised storage of email archives.

Of course, Dr Seely's trainees were actually undertaking two education exercises. Managing email as a culture and also as a technology. In the Master the software piece, it begs the question as to why the software had to be mastered in the first place. Implicitly, therefore, the software was mastering the user.

Now there's a thought!

1 The average desk worker has 36 hours of unfinished work on his desk and spends 3 hours per week sorting piles trying to find the project to work on next: Richard Swenson: The Overload Syndrome: Learning to Live Within Your Limits (1995) Navpress.

2 The Trouble With Computers: Thomas K. Landauer (1995) MIT Press.

3 Nancy Flynn, Executive Director, ePolicy Institute, Email Rules, Free Report (2003) Retrieved April 1, 2007 from

4 Change invokes a wide range of responses in people, from excitement and enthusiasm to panic, fear, depression, feelings of loss and confusion. Nancy Barger, The Challenge of Change in Organizations Helping Employees Thrive in the New Frontier (1995), David Black Press

5 Reported in: E-mail Management, Goodman, (2006), Chapter 14 pp 87-90.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

“If it’s this bad at Microsoft,” Mr. Horvitz added, “it has to be bad at other companies, too.”

It’s worth a few moments to reflect upon how far we have travelled with email in the last 15 years.

Volume – in 2006, it was estimated that genuine emails are sent by 1.1 billion emails users around the world each day, with 50 billion genuine messages dispatched daily accompanied by at least 120 billion spam. (1) Email traffic is growing at between 10% and 25% per year. (2)

Size - the size of personal email records is increasing exponentially. One study reports that 27% of email-using employees have reached or exceeded the amount of storage space allowed at work. (3)

Overuse - overuse of email is impacting on user effectiveness. 59% of employed American adults admit to wasting a lot of time searching for lost email. Moreover, between 47% (those who earn less than USD35,000 annually) and 65% (those earning greater than USD75,000 per annum) admit to wasting time looking for email they know they’ve received.(4)

Productivity - email has had a profound impact on individual productivity. More than 25% of employed US adults acknowledge that the volume of email they receive causes them to fall behind in their work.(5). In 2005 the Wall Street Journal reported that white-collar workers waste 40% of their day, not because they aren’t smart but because they were never taught organizing skills to function in the modern workplace.(6) A typical knowledge worker spends about 2.5 hours per day (or roughly 30% of the work day) searching for information. (7) In a 2007 study, a group of Microsoft workers took, on average, 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks, such as writing reports or computer code, after responding to incoming email. They strayed off to reply to other messages or browse news, sports or entertainment Web sites.(8) “I was surprised by how easily people were distracted and how long it took them to get back to the task,” said Eric Horvitz, a Microsoft research scientist and co-author of the paper. “If it’s this bad at Microsoft,” Mr. Horvitz added, “it has to be bad at other companies, too.”

Morale & Health - email causes stress. (9) According to some reports, 80% of existing health expenditure is now stress-related. (10) In 1999 it was estimated that job-related stress cost US industry USD300 billion p.a. (11) 71% of white-collar workers feel stressed about the amount of information they must process and act on while doing business; 60% feel overwhelmed.(12)

In 2005 AOL conducted a survey of 4,000 email users on email reliance, and reported ‘an obsessive-compulsive need to check email morning, noon and night.’(13)

42% of vacationers check their business email while on holiday, and 23% check it on the weekend.(14) Employees are taking an average of 1 min 44 seconds to reply to a message, with 70% of employees responding within 6 seconds! The disruption caused is 64 seconds before they get back to work; 40% of such interruptions are self-generated (i.e. not caused by the email pop up). (15)

This 2001 research confirmed the findings of a 1994 study, namely that people answer emails as they arrive, treating the technology as they would the telephone.(16) The typical US worker is interrupted by communications technology once every 10 minutes.(17) A 2004 study reported that both interruptions and the consequent task-switching caused by email takes a toll on workers, who tend to spend an average of only three minutes working on any one activity before switching to another.(18)

Negative health effects of this modern phenomenon were reported as early as 1989.(19) Studies showed that the increased pace of work leads to stress, (20)(21)(22) that employee stress can cause serious problems for the organization, (23) and that the pressure of email leads to a reduction in IQ greater than that caused by the use of cannabis (24). In a study undertaken by the University of London, “Respondents' minds were all over the place as they faced new questions and challenges every time an email dropped into their inbox. Productivity at work was damaged and the effect on staff who could not resist trying to juggle new messages with existing work was the equivalent, over a day, to the loss of a night's sleep.”

So, dear readers, if anything is in need of a shot in the arm, it’s got to be email.

Where are all the new ideas?

1 The Radicati Group:

2 IDC, Worldwide Email Usage Forecast 2002-2006

3 Fortiva and Harris Interactive

4 c.f. Fortiva and Harris Interactive

5 c.f (1)(2)


7 IDC White Paper: The high cost of not finding information 8/2001


9 Australian Psychological Society, Email communication survey (2005)

10 Center for Disease Control & Prevention reported in Fast Company magazine 2/03 pg. 88

11 Data Communication 2/98

12 Institute of the Future, Menlo Park, California

13 AOL, (2005), Email addiction survey cited in Hair M., Renaud, K.V., Ramsey, J., (2006) The influence of self-esteem and locus of control on perceived email related stress pg. 2 (

14 Westling, D. (2001) Gartner finds US vacationers addicted to email. Survey shows 42% of users check business email on vacation.


15 Jackson, T., Dawson R., & Wilson, D. (2001). The cost of email interruption. Journal of Systems and Information Technology, 5, 81-92

16 Markus, M. L., (1994). Finding a happy medium: Explaining the negative effects of electronic communication on social life at work. ACM Transactions on Information Systems, 12, 119-312

17 2005 Institute for Future & Gallop

18 Gonzalez, V. M., & Mark G. (2004). Constant, constant, multi-tasking craziness: managing multiple working spheres. In proceedings of the 2004 conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 113-120). ACM Press.

19 Levine, R.V., Lynch, K., Miyake, K., & Lucia, M., (1989). The type A city: Coronary heart disease and the pace of life. Journal of Behavioral Medicine (Historical Archive), 12, 509-524

20 Arndt, R. (1987). Work pace, stress, and cumulative trauma disorders. Journal of Hand Surgery, 5, 866-869

21 Houtman, I. L., Bongers, P. M., Smulders, P. G., & Kompie, M. A. (1994) Psychosocial stressors at work and musculoskeletal problems. Scandinavian Journal of Work and Environmental Health, 20, 139-145.

22 Steptoe, A., Fieldman, G., Evans, O., & Perry, L. (1993). Control over work pace, job strain and cardiovascular responses in middle-aged men. Journal of Hypertension, 11, 751-759.

23 Calabrese, J.R., Kling, M. A., & Gold, P.W. (1987). Alterations in immunocompetence during stress, bereavement and depression: Focus on neuroendocrine regulation, American Journal of Psychiatry, 144, 1123-1134.


It's time to start a new debate..

Email is a phenomenal technology, but it has serious problems that reduce its usefulness. We are living in an unparalleled era of information exchange where the number of email messages is relentlessly growing, and where the volume of unstructured and unmanaged information is threatening to swamp all the productivity gains brought about by the advent of personal computing in the early 1980s.(1)

Email is here to stay; indeed it is now an official part of language. (2) The notion of ‘email overload’ was identified in 1996 (3) but was first mooted 14 years earlier, in 1982, when Peter Denning, the president of the Association for Computing Machinery,(4) called the pain of working with email ‘The Receiver’s Plight’, asking: “Who will save the receivers [of email] from drowning in the rising tide of information so generated?” (5)

Nevertheless, email has now become the primary ‘electronic habitat’, (6) and there has been considerable academic investigation and research into the phenomenon.(7)

Email overload crept up on us, eventually sweeping aside our individual efforts to manage it systematically. We had no prior experience with such a killer application, so there was no foundation upon which to envisage the future. Email management techniques and policies did not exist at the outset and we were overcome by the rapid advancements in technology and the seductive benefits of speed, easy communication and a seemingly limitless information-transfer capability. Email overload was caused by a combination of easy-to-adopt yet poorly thought-through technology and a revolutionary change in our communication culture.

This Blog is all about ‘email-as-problem’ but seeks genuine new insight. As the kiddies song reflects, the wheels on the bus go round and round – well so do the tired old stories “ten tips to mastering email overload”,email free Fridays”, “email bankruptcy” and that figment of a savvy publicist’s imagination “emailers anonymous”.

Please join me as the debate begins...

1 The Conference Board, Annual Productivity Survey, January 27, 2007. Conclusion: the search is now on in the developed world for new productivity improvements without which economic growth and corporate profits could suffer.

2 Pearsall, J. (Ed) (2001). The Concise Oxford Dictionary. Retrieved April 1, 2007

3 Whittaker, S. & Sidner, C. (1996). Email overload: Exploring personal information management of Email. Proceedings of the CHI 96 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. New York ACM.


5 Denning P. (1982). Electronic junk. Communications of the ACM, 25(3), March 1982

6 Ducheneaut, N., Belotti, V. (2001). Email as habitat: an exploration of embedded PIM. Interactions, 8(5), ACM Press 30-38.

7 Ducheneaut, N., Watts, L. (2005). In search of coherence: A review of Email Research. HCI, 2005, Vol 20, pp 11-48.