Email Backlog

It's no secret that email overload is a problem these days, here's just a few of many articles on the topic:

A quote from the second article above is particularly interesting (or scary):

   In this study Dr Jackson found that it takes an average of 
   64 seconds to recover your train of thought after interruption 
   by email. So people who check their email every five minutes 
   waste 8 and 1/2 hours a week figuring out what they were 
   doing moments before.

In nearly 20 years (wow!) of reading lots of email daily this has never been much of a problem for me though. I always managed to keep my inbox almost empty from day to day (I long considered 100 emails to be the maximum threshhold to ever have pending in the inbox).

Thinking back, I'd say historically the bulk of my incoming email has been either

  • Administrivia (meeting announcements and such): quickly dispatched without thought or mental interruptions
  • Engineering content, directly related to whatever I'm working on that day: these take time to read and process but since the emails are relevant to the current project they don't cause a mental context switch and may even help further the project at hand so there is a net win

As resources get tighter and I find myself filling more and more roles simultaneously the dynamic has changed in the last 6-9 months or so. From a perpetually clean inbox I've now gone to a significant backlog. Even more annoying is that I find there are many days where all I get to do is read email!

After some months it is clear this is not a temporary crunch, so I need to change strategies from what has worked in the past. I spent some time monitoring my email activity to figure out what is different. It's not really quantity, I've always received lots of email but it hasn't been a problem. The key difference appears to be that now I'm involved in many projects each one with many unrelated trains of discussion.

As emails arrive, each one is more often than not unrelated to the previous ones and also unrelated to what I'm actually trying to get done at the moment. And thus, I find myself facing the case made in the Dr. Jackson study quoted above.

As each email arrives I read it and start thinking of that particular project/problem for a few moments (a few seconds to a minute or two). It is not enough time to solve or address the issue, just enough to get distracted. Hoping to get back to the real work I was doing instead of spending more time on this new train of though, I don't actually process the email, so it remains in the queue.

By then, several other emails have arrived so I repeat the cycle with each one. By the time I finally get back to what I was actually working on, that project is so many mental context switches behind I no longer have any idea what I was doing and need to spend several minutes getting back into it. By which time, of course, ten more emails have arrived... and the cycle repeats all day.

So I need to address the interruption and context switch problem. A few weeks ago I started to allocate limited time to email. Specifically:

  • Only read email in specific blocks of time preallocated for email on that day.
  • If I can answer or resolve the issue in less than 5 minutes, do so right then, within the time allocated for email handling.
  • If it's going to take any longer than that, add a task to the bottom of my to-do list and move on.
  • The rest of the time, quit mutt and resist all urges to go look at email.

I started by allocating two hours a day to email, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Quickly it became apparent this is not enough to keep up, so I increased it to three hours. I'll gather more data before settling on the final timing but looks like it'll have to be a bit over three hours a day for email processing.

Here's a graph, showing only a few days from last month. I'll post another one with much more data once some more time goes by so I have more numbers. The yellow area is my current email backlog and the blue line is the number of minutes a day spent processing email.


Comments:

Thanks for sharing. Very brainstorming and helpful. I think I should try your idea.

Posted by guest on June 15, 2009 at 11:26 PM PDT #

I never had the disciplined approach you do at trying to find ways to manage all the context switches, but I feel a little better knowing that it isn't just my Inbox that got overwhelmed at Sun.

Posted by DzM on June 16, 2009 at 01:18 AM PDT #

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