The Reply To Email Overload? Prioritize — Or Turn It Off

Jul 25, 2013
Originally published on July 26, 2013 4:33 am

In the high-profile civil case against Wall Street titan Steven Cohen, federal authorities accuse the hedge fund head of allowing insider trading within his ranks. Cohen's lawyers offered up a defense fit for the digital age: They claim he didn't see a key, incriminating email because he gets too many messages — an estimated 1,000 a day, and opens only 11 percent of them.

Without getting into the plausibility of that defense, this did raise the unrelenting issue of email overload and how people today are managing the onslaught.

"What we do see is that email has a general tendency to be quite disruptive to people who aren't able to truly put tasks at the back of their minds," said Barry Gill, who analyzed email trends for the global software firm, Mimecast. His findings are published in the Harvard Business Review. Gill says that for those in the knowledge sector, as much as half an employee's workday can be spent interacting with messaging platforms.

"For some people that will be productive and for others it'll be unproductive," Gill says.

Former Microsoft and Apple executive Linda Stone knows all about these distractions. She coined the term "continuous partial attention" to describe how complex multitasking is nearly impossible. She says trying to do more than one thing that requires focused thinking leads to a state in which we're all sort of distracted, all of the time.

"It's that nothing really gets much attention at all," Stone says. "So if you're sending an email while you're talking on the phone, the person on the other end of the phone says, 'Hey, I don't think you're listening to me.' And the person who's the recipient of the email you wrote says, 'Hey, you didn't understood what I said.' So it means that we end up doing everything more poorly and we wind up really amping up our stress level."

This got us wondering about the people who probably get much more email than the rest of us — CEOs and entrepreneurs — and their systems for managing their inboxes. A fascinating thread on the question-and-answer site Quora features some of their tricks. And here's a sample from New York-based entrepreneur Nat Turner, who explains on his blog:

"Generally, my strategy is to archive anything that does not need immediate attention so that every item in my inbox represents something that I need to do. This departs from some people's strategy of using read vs. unread to denote items needing attention. I personally like to keep things clean and as such use the Archive function for inbox management frequently (I'd go crazy if I saw 4,300 messages in my Inbox like most people keep)."

You've probably learned the general productivity tricks: creating filters for emails of different priority levels, delegating your work, or just shutting it off.

"Take a bit of time out to understand the communications profile that you have," Gill says. "Switch off your email when you're busy with something. When you're in the middle of writing a document you don't need to go back and check your email. So switch it off."

But if these practical tips don't help, remember that overload is a matter of perspective.

"We could also say when we walk out the front door of where we live, 'Oh my gosh, there's so many blades of grass, I have lawn overload," says Stone. "It's really all about what's our point of view on it? Are these things really flying at us, or are we not making the choices we need to make?"

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Federal authorities have hit the high-profile hedge fund SAC Capital Advisors with a criminal insider trading indictment which will likely devastate its business. The Wall Street titan who heads the firm - Steven Cohen - wasn't named in the indictment, but authorities have built a civil case against him, accusing Cohen of allowing insider trading within his ranks. Cohen's defense? His lawyers say he never read a key incriminating email because he just gets too many messages. NPR's Elise Hu explores this modern dilemma: Too much email, too little time.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: It's a defense fit for the digital age. Lawyers for Steven Cohen say he missed a 2008 message about trading Dell stock because he didn't see it. He gets more than 1,000 messages a day.

BARRY GILL: Upwards of a 1,000 messages a day is not at all uncommon.

HU: That's Barry Gill, who analyzes email trends for the global software firm, Mimecast. His research shows white-collar workers spend as much as half their workdays interacting with their messaging platforms.

GILL: For some people that will be productive and for others, it will be unproductive. What we do see, though, is that email has a general tendency to be quite disruptive to people who aren't able to truly put tasks at the back of their minds.

HU: So if you are easily distracted...

(SOUNDBITE OF EMAIL MESSAGE PING)

HU: Just hearing that sound of an incoming message or calendar invite...

(SOUNDBITE OF CALENDAR MESSAGE PING)

HU: Or tweet...

(SOUNDBITE OF TWEET PING)

HU: ....can be unnerving.

LINDA STONE: Why do you have a ping on? You know, why don't you start by turning that off?

HU: Former Microsoft and Apple executive Linda Stone knows all about these distractions.

STONE: There's plenty of research in psychology to indicate that those tones really become agitating to your nervous system.

HU: Stone coined the term "continuous partial attention" to describe how complex multitasking is nearly impossible. She says trying to do more than one thing that requires focused thinking leads to a state in which we're sort of distracted, all of the time.

STONE: It's that nothing really gets much attention at all. So if you're sending an email when you're talking on the phone, the person on the phone says, hey, I don't think you're listening to me. And the person who's the recipient of the email you wrote says, hey, you didn't understand what I said. So it means that we end up doing everything more poorly and we wind up really amping up our stress level.

HU: Barry Gill says stopping the stress means making some changes.

GILL: Take a bit of time out to understand the communications profile that you have. And set up some automated rules which will allow you to take control of your communications again. Switch off your email when you're busy with something. When you're in the middle of writing a document you don't need to go back and check your email. So switch it off.

HU: Like so much in life, email overload is a matter of perspective.

STONE: We could also say when we walk out the front door of where we live, oh, my gosh, there's so many blades of grass, I have lawn overload. It's really all about what's our point of view on it. Are these things really flying at us, or are we not making the choices we need to make?

HU: Putting an end to partially paying attention requires fully committing to a choice. Elise Hu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: And we will read your email. You can send messages to morningedition@npr.org, and there are other places to find us. We've got a MORNING EDITION Facebook page and we're on Twitter @nprgreene and @morningedition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.