Is Email A Scourge Or Merely A Scapegoat For Information Overload?

No doubt about it, email can be a source of stress. But it's also (somewhat unfairly) become a symbol for a larger problem.

"We are being overloaded by a deluge of information coming from an increasing number of devices, which now include smartphones and tablet computers. New social applications are to blame, but the primary scourge is email, which is coming in faster than we can respond. And there is not a damned thing you can do about it, so you better get used to it."

Sound familiar? Dozens of recent articles begin this way and then go on to lament the loss of control these technologies are imparting on our lives. But not everybody thinks this is true.

A study from Stanford University and Boston University was published in paper entitled, "E-mail as a Source and Symbol of Stress." The paper concludes that email has unfairly become a symbol for overload. The report concludes that "email masquerades as a simple material cause while functioning as a symbol of overload. Employees and organizations are unlikely to recognize and address the larger problem: new patterns of work that crowd days and create unrealistic expectations about response time. In short, to the degree that email’s symbolic force diverts attention from the stress created by the demands being placed on a downsized and globalized workforce, it serves as a red herring."

So email is not the problem, new workplace expectations are the problem? I don’t think so. Let’s dig a little deeper.

Let’s start with the myriad studies demonstrating the detrimental impact of email load has on a person’s ability to focus on tasks. The Stanford paper even includes some of these. For example, a study carried out in 2003 by researchers at Loughborough University in the U.K. found that 70% of emails are attended to within 6 seconds of arriving. It found that it then takes an average of 64 seconds to return to an interrupted task upon completing the email response. But how often do people immediately return to the previous task once they answered that email? Less often than you would think. Another study, this one performed by Gloria Mark at the University of California, Irvine in 2005 found that when workers are interrupted, they end up moving on to two intermediate tasks before going back to the original one. Taking this into account, it ends up taking workers over 25 minutes (on average) to return to the original task. Ponder that for a moment…25 minutes to get back to what you were doing before you were interrupted to answer that email. Now multiply that by the hundreds of emails coming in every day.

With these finding, how can you ignore the impact email has on our sense of overload? To bolster this argument, a subsequent study by Mark found that workers cut off from email for short periods of time experienced less stress than their connected coworkers. The authors surmise that a reduction in email usage (at least temporarily) reduces the stress associated with the fragmented work created by email interruptions. On the flip side, the authors admit that email usage speeds up the pace of work. And realistically, what organization is going to slow down the pace of work in order to reduce employee stress?

Let’s face it, email is not going anywhere, so lamenting its impact on our lifestyles is just a waste of time. The increased usage of new communication tools like instant messaging, microblogging, and social networks is just making the situation worse, not better—at home and at work. And these tools are being used more and more on the go, enabled by new smart mobile devices, which are becoming increasing prevalent. In fact, a recent report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 45% of Americans already own a smartphone, 26% own an e-book reader, and 31% own a tablet computer. At work, the situation is the same. A recent study by Forrester Research found that two-thirds of workers use more than one device for work and 28% already use three. The communication load is not only getting worse, it is now coming from more and more directions.

What Can We Do?

First of all, take a deep breath and relax. All is not lost. This is not a Howard Beale moment of running to the window and screaming, "I'm mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore." (Besides, it would probably be more effective to tweet this today.) The introduction of new technology is always accompanied by a period of adjustment. Even when the telegraph was introduced in the second half of the 19th century, people were lamenting its disruptive nature. In short, this is nothing new.

The next step is to stem the deluge of communication by filtering incoming messages. This is one of the most successful strategies for reducing the torrent of things with which you need to deal. Since tools can process data much faster than humans, this is a place where technology can help. But separating the wheat from the digital chaff is easier said than done. One hot area of research in information filtering is employing context to help automatically filter information. Some examples of employing context include using your geographical location to filter search results when looking for a restaurant, using previous purchases as a way to filter products offered on an e-commerce site, or returning a focused set of articles when searching for information on a topic, based upon a past demonstration of interest.

The next place technology can help reduce overload is by aggregating related-information and thusly decreasing the need to toggle between applications and windows to get the full picture, which also leads to stress. An example of aggregation is displaying political news from multiple news outlets in a single window. Aggregation tools already exist; you are probably using them today. Examples of aggregation tools include Flipboard and Newsle for news, HootSuite and TweetDeck for tweets, and Facebook and LinkedIn for social updates.

At the end of the day, I believe the solution to these problems rests ultimately with ourselves, as individuals and as a society. We need to decide that while the increasing pace of communication is a fact, we do not have to be reactive to incoming requests for communication. Case in point: A study released this month by Pew found that 20% of Americans who once used Facebook have already dropped it, and 61% of Facebook users say they have taken voluntary breaks from Facebook for a period of several weeks or more. The point is that we hold the keys to how people communicate with us, at least at home. At work the situation is more complicated since you can’t unilaterally stop responding to email; here the solution is largely related to time management and developing new collaboration patterns. I have written about this in the past and you can find some time-proven strategies for dealing with information overload at work here.

So, what do you think? Is email the evil scourge? Is business to blame? Or ultimately is it up to us to control our own destiny?

—Author David Lavenda is a product strategy executive at a high-tech company. He also does academic research on information overload in organizations and he is an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology. He tweets from @dlavenda.

[Image: Flickr user Jeremy Vandel]

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  • Dave - Just found this article and although it is a year old, I agree with your key points.

    E-Mail has grown to become the dominant mode of business communication because it is effective, efficient, fast, and accurate. In addition, the capabilities of e-mail have grown substantially over the past few decades, and it is now used for many purposes beyond just messaging.

    The key strategies to deal with e-mail overload fall into three broad groups: organizational, technological, and behavioral and research has found that in order to make the greatest improvements in your e-mail skills and the largest reduction in E-mail overload, you must focus on elements in all three areas.

    My doctoral dissertation was on the intersection of e-mail processing skills, e-mail overload, and technology training and I recently launched a web site focusing on this topic: Please feel free to check it out for resources and ideas on this topic. Best Regards

  • JatikaSpeaks

    As the Public Relations Officer for Georgia Toastmasters, I am responsible for most of the emails that go out to our membership base of more than 6,000. Every couple of months or so, I'll get about 30-40 requests to opt-out of receiving emails.  I have been working on making my emails more target-specific and less "general pop" and make sure I give them a clear idea of the content of the email by writing it in the Subject line (WITHOUT CAPS!!)  Still, their frustration and getting what they think is a "lot of emails" is understandable.  I just wish I had a better form of delivering the information.

  • Suleman

    Few successful people know how to delegate.  I think that's the number one problem.

  • Gordon Radlein

    Great article David. I've long been arguing that the issue with email isn't so much the volume as the distraction. This is more of an issue in the workplace where studies have shown that most of the email received is irrelevant to the recipient, yet 85% of email is still responded to within 2 minutes (it could be the boss after all). 

    I do think that technology can go far to mitigate this issue. Services like Lightermail (disclaimer: I'm a founder) can help reduce the amount of incoming email and let you decide when it interrupts you (while still letting those important emails through). Services that do automatic filtering can help as well, though they may not be as applicable to the workplace since important emails could potentially be filtered and users may need to actively monitor folders.

    I disagree with Christopher though in that I think a unified inbox just leads to more distraction (more items to be notified about). However, one thing that needs to be mentioned is that there's no one size fits all solution. Email is very personal and different people approach it in different ways. Either way you're right that email isn't going anywhere. A fact I think is being recognized by more and more people as there is a lot of action happening in this space. 

  • David Lavenda

    Gordon, thanx for the comments.  I would like to hear more about your solution - pls forward me some information.

  • Christopher Weir

    The increase in volume of information we receive through digital communications is astronomical and is also growing at a worrying rate. As alluded to in the article, it's no longer just email where the deluge is aimed, it flies at us from every online angle it seems. 

    Using smart filters to reduce and sort your mails helps, and choosing set periods of the day to bulk sort through emails also helps but the key tool is a collaborative Unified Inbox, where you can work with numerous channels of communication easily. 

    Having Twitter, Facebook, multiple e-mail accounts, Calender, Evernote, Dropbox, Basecamp etc in one place, where you can work as a team where appropriate greatly reduces overload

  • David Lavenda

    Christopher - while I agree that aggregation is an important part of reducing overload, what you get with pure aggregation is what I call a "stream of unconsciousness" - a veritable deluge of updates that are unrelated to each other. So, fewer windows, but still lots of confusion. The additional piece missing is the ability to filter. Sure, Outlook and other products allow you to filter, but maintaining the filters is very labor-intensive and let's face it, nobody has the patience to do it. The solution will be 'smart-filters' that are instituted through the use of context to figure out how to filter without having to explicitly define the filters. I am doing some work on how to do this - and should have some concrete suggestions later this year. The dream of having all your work updates in a single window filtered by the context of the task at hand isn't easy to realize, but some important steps are not that far away.  Stay tuned...

  • Paul H. Burton

    David: Thank you for being a voice of reason in the roar of disclaim! As a time management "guy" who has built a very successful speaking, training and coaching business out of developing his own way of dealing with e-mail overload (see QuietSpacing on Amazon), I tell audiences that the solution to information overload in today's workplace is multi-faceted.

    First, we need to leverage the tools we have to process the information instead of continually throwing money at the next great techno-solution. For example, Microsoft Outlook is by far the most mature software program (as is it's it web companion Office 365) for handing our "productivity suite" issues. I know, collective gasp of horror, but it's true. (I maintain proficiency in all similar products and have a second company running entirely on Google for Business.) Most of my clients have no idea how to use the program because no one has ever given them specific application training. Instead, most have received no training and if they did it was functional training (what Outlook can do rather than how to use it effective).

    Second, we (organizations and people both) need to wrap our brains around the notion that the work models created by the industrial revolution are no longer relevant. In fact, our lives are now more similar to the rural way of life - where our work lives and our personal lives are entwined. I just co-authored a booklet on this called "Working on the Move" which I'm happy to share with your readers if they'd like to contact me for a copy.

    Finally, the biggest risk of information overload and its effects is that productivity (actually getting things done) comes when we're focused. Focus comes when our minds (and our surrounding environments) are as quiet as possible. This is the crux of my work and the corresponding benefit is that when people get more done, they feel more accomplished and enjoy their work more!

  • RepriseMail

    Paul, I very much agree with your comments. I've experienced both small startups and large corporate environments and have seen that nearly all large corporations are completely Outlook-dependent. It's literally the glue that holds everyone's work together... the lifeblood of the organization. Workers are in and out of Outlook all day long, it's how they receive new tasks to work on, where they update peers and bosses of progress, and on and on. So it's incredibly hard to avoid getting swept into an email chain or some new arriving email that seems easy to handle and offers a brief respite from a more difficult task.

    I would very much like to receive a copy of your booklet--it sounds very much on target with my own philosophies on email management and those built into our solution.

    Addendum: apologies but the sign-in seems to have botched my profile. This is Bret Beresford-Wood from Humanisys.

  • David Lavenda

    Bret, thanx for the comments as well. See my comments for Paul. If you spend you day in Outlook, like millions of others - you will find the suggestions above helpful.