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Leadership

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]