Solving Email Overload

Researcher Karen Renaud on why it took a decade to solve, and how awareness is the crux of a tidy inbox.

A research team from the University of Glasgow and Modeuro Consulting recently asked executives at the utility company London Power to think twice before hitting send. As a result, email around the office was reduced by half—not to mention that it freed up 11,000 hours of work time annually.

Researcher Karen Renaud talks to Mindful about how the simple act of being aware of one’s email habits changed her own sending style, as well as the solutions her research teams were coming up with to solve email overload.

KR: I’ve been doing email research for about ten years now. In the beginning, I was really interested in interruptions and how people recover from being interrupted when they’re working on their computers. We had this piece of software that would record all actions on a person’s machine. (It wouldn’t give us the details of what they were typing in, it would just say what application they are using.) What I saw was people hopping between email and loads of other things all day and this was often happening at minute intervals. So people maybe are working in a word document for a few minutes and then jumping to email and then going back. And I noticed this hip-hop for 8 hours at a time. (This work turned into a larger study on email stress.)

At the time, I had this software on my own machine and I watched my own behavior and I couldn’t believe it. Just being shown really made me more aware, and all I did was switch off my email notifications or close windows on my screen so my inbox wasn’t calling me all the time. I found that helped me a lot but if I hadn’t seen my own behavior I think I wouldn’t care.

MF: The awareness part seems to be key. The statistic in the Modeuro study that really caught me was the 52% reduction in email in the office. The executive group set a 20% target to reduce their messages but email traffic around the office actually dropped by half. What happened?

KR: The only analogy I can think of is, I was reading an article about traffic and it was saying if there’s too much traffic on the road and you’d like to reduce it by 15%, you only have to get 1% fewer people to drive. So just a small turn in behavior has a massive avalanche effect and I think just the fact that the executives had undertaken to send fewer emails somehow that just had an avalanche effect. Because when you send an email it breeds more emails, so just not sending one means that 20 don’t get sent in consequence. So those guys reducing by 20 per cent, that’s why the effect was that big because previously they were sending to other people who were then forwarding to other people and so on and that whole chain event wasn’t happening anymore.

MF: When you look at all the research you’ve done on emailing behaviors and the stress around emailing, how does this piece of research— getting people at the top to be aware of how they’re using email can actually reduce email— sit with you from what you’ve learned?

KR: Yeah, it feels like I’ve been hunting around in the dark for a long time and all of a sudden this light is shining. We knew there was a problem ten years ago, but we had no idea how to deal with it. A lot of people have tried to address the problem by giving people more tools to cut down or manage their inbox. For many years, that seemed to be the right solution. But, actually, we were completely on the wrong track.

When Andrew Killick, the CEO of Modeuro Consulting, came along with this idea of well, just make the bosses email less, it seemed so simple but it’s incredibly powerful. If you want to receive less, you have to send less. That’s sort of obvious, but it’s like all the findings in history that seem obvious once everybody knows—this one seems obvious but a lot of people never saw it.

MF: I think there are some takeaways from the study that any individual who’s thinking about reducing their email could use. Can you share some good email etiquette tips with us?

KR: If you’re really disciplined, you read your email in the morning, you deal with what you can and you close it down and then do what you have to do. Then, in the afternoon, you open your email again. You don’t read email all day.

Before you send an email, think before you link. Just take a second to think about: is this the best way to achieve this? Should I instead phone somebody, or should I walk down the hall to speak with them in person? Just think about it: is email the best mechanism? If it is, think very carefully about how you formulate the message, because often misunderstandings happen because of emails where the person who wrote it didn’t really think they were offending the other person but they still got offended.

MF: The one finding that really struck me was that of the substantial amount of emails that goes to someone’s inbox, it’s often not exactly clear what they’re is supposed to do with the message. That’s a huge indicator that people are not taking the time to make sure their message is received the best way it can be.

KR: Well some people will email—I don’t know what you could call them, serial emailers—they blast emails out to multiple people, but unfortunately then you’ve got so much email in your inbox that you lose those things anyways. That’s the other thing: only send to people who absolutely, essentially have to see or people who have to act on it. Otherwise, if you keep blasting stuff into people’s inboxes, they will just ignore you. It will be like the boy who cried wolf. “Oh, he’s always sending me stuff it’s probably not important.”

This web extra provides additional information related to an article which appeared in the April 2014 issue of Mindful magazine.