Why 80 Percent Of Your Emails Are A Total Waste

Thinking twice before you press "send" can save your organization literally thousands of hours each year, a recent study shows.

If the execs at your company are pouring out emails, the organization will soon be drowning—or so reports the Wall Street Journal.

It goes like this: A study by the University of Glasgow and Modeuro Consulting followed the email patterns of International Power, a London-based power company.

They found the executive team was spending 1.5 hours a day sending out an average of 56 emails. Their over-emailing behavior proved contagious—just as ideas, happiness, and sickness are.

"Before you know it, you’ll spark a ripple, a flurry of emails across the organization," says Andrew Killick, who founded Modeuro.

From what Killick says, organization-wide email saturation is a fascinating case study in the way in which an influential individuals' behavior shapes that of the group. The Journal continues:

While email can sometimes be a quick and convenient way to gauge interest or disseminate information, it's often not the best tool for the job, he said. About 20% of the time, we're using email correctly—leveraging it to communicate across time zones or answer a well-defined question. But 80% of email traffic is "waste," he said—stuff that’s useless or really requires a phone call or face-to-face discussion.

In other words, keeping someone "in the loop" isn't doing them a favor. Killick told the Journal that it can be an "enormous" waste of time—which reminds us of LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner's advice to always mind who gets CC'ed.

Unboxing the inbox

Recognizing that waste, Modeuro asked the leadership at International Power to "think twice" before forwarding email or sending a message to multiple people. That intervention yielded startling statistics, according to the Journal:

  • The initiative led to a 54% drop in the number of emails sent by execs.
  • Though the company's other employees weren't told to do so, they sent fewer emails too—by 64%.
  • Taken together, the company gained 10,400 hours annually.

The mystery, then, is how to get out of our inboxes. Killick says that we won't find inbox redemption in app. Instead, we can opt for a finer phone call or a co-investing conversation. That's the surest way to change our outlook.

Hat tip: The Wall Street Journal

[Inbox Image: PaulPaladin via Shutterstock]

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8 Comments

  • James

    A phone call offers nothing to aid in communication except vocal inflections which themselves are lossy due to compression used for the transmission. There is also no record of what was said, and thus nothing to reference in the unlikely event the call was packed with useful information instead of a bunch of fluff and social pleasantries at the lead and tail of the conversation. People on the phone also tend to fill time spent thinking with either distracting silence ("are you still there?") or filler conversation that is completely irrelevant.  Phones go unanswered--people are on the road, not on the clock, at the water cooler, in the bathroom or simply too busy to take a call. Finally, there are people who do not hear well and rely on vocal inflections or reading lips to gain meaning from a conversation. The phone lacks both of those. It is an inferior form of communication. 

    In an email, people have time to put their thoughts together in a concise way without feeling rushed or "put on the spot."  They can easily list information and that information can be referenced as much as necessary and by multiple people when necessary. For example, I have two employees on day shift, one on swing and one on night all of whom do the same tasks. When I have a job that any one of them can do, I can email them all, and whoever has time available first can complete the work. That saves me from having to call each of them individually with the information, or worse try to distract them all together in a conference call.   The email saves a great deal of time, provides details in a way that can be referenced as much as required and it is instantaneous while still being convenient for those who aren't immediately available.  

    My preferred form of communication when possible, however, is face-to-face, because it offers the full range of vocal tones, facial expressions and body language. Pauses in the conversation are not awkward, as the other parties can see you writing down important information or collecting your thoughts. While it's more time consuming and offers a less-permanent record (though more memorable than a phone call) than an email, the amount of information that can be exchanged in a short, planned out meeting is impressive.  

    That said, 80% of emails *are* waste. So are 80% of phone calls and 80% of the time spent in meetings the way most managers and executives structure them.  The key is to train management to select the most appropriate and effective form of communication for the situation and to lead their teams in doing the same.  Organizational communication, no matter the form, should be planned, thought out, meaningful and purposeful. Otherwise it wastes everyone's time. 

  • Jason Prance

    So true. Get to zero inbox every day if you can. Your life will thank you.

  • Kouji Kubo

    I agree that 80% of emails are waste. It's not only an email issue. We have always 80% of junk in any categories. Then, are those 80% useless? We have to be careful to think of it.

    I hear some theory, which says 20% members make 80% of the outcome and 80%, the rest, contribute 20% of the result. It suggests that laying off those 80% gives 4 times higher efficiency. Some experiments and observations have showed that was not true. Those 20% would-be excellent workers made 20% of the original outcome.

    The 20% workers had some change. 80% of those made the 20% result, which is 4% of the original outcome, and 20% of those produced 80%, which is 19%. The fact is that seemingly-inefficient 80% of people were indispensable for so-called able workers.

    That might not be a good analogy for emails, but it suggests that we have to be careful about thinking what is really needed or not.

    By the way, the current email user interface is not convenient when discussion is needed, especially if more than two people join it. Once a discussion starts on the email, it sometimes is difficult to trace who said what. If, for example, there is a bulletin-board-like user interface on the email system, emails will be much better to use efficiently.

  • Renaud

    Email use is a good measure of the level of trust in an organization.  The more you feel you need a written record of your conversations, the more you'll use email.

  • Gary

    it's wrong to think the company "gained 10,400 hours" just because people stopped emailing so much. It no doubt it reduced wasted hours but then how many conversations took place to replace the emails? How long were those conversation? were they productive? etc etc. The findings were a bit too simplistic. Do organisations send too many internal emails  - i've no doubt they do. Should they engage in more conversations - I'm sure they should, but what you really want to know is are you improving productivity and the bottom line by reducing email usage and increasing conversations. The study told us nothing on this and therefore lacks depth.

  • Oz A.

    I did too, even jokingly.. but it actually pushed me to do a whole re-organization and prioritization that has been pending for weeks.  This hit the spot.. Thanks guys