Let Me Check My Email

About two months ago I posted on attempting to keep email in check so it's a good time to review some statistics and results...

The following graph shows the percentage of time I spent reading email each day:

The average over the past three months is about 45% Wow.. So over the last quarter I've spent just under half of all working hours reading (and answering) email. No wonder it is hard to get concrete work done!

This is somewhat higher than the 37.5% (three hours a day out of eight) that I had predicted in the previous article a couple months ago. This is largely explained due to the recent release of Web Stack 1.5. Due to the impending release I found myself having to check email more often than scheduled to keep on top of last minute pre-release activities.

A few points worth noting out of the experiment so far...

  • It is not easy to limit email activity to the scheduled two or three hours a day. Ideally the graph above should be mostly flat. While part of this is inevitably due to the release activities, I'll try harder going forward to stick to the scheduled email times.
  • While the total times may have fluctuated more than I wanted, I did (mostly) manage to contain my email activities to bounded windows of time within the day, instead of checking emails every three minutes all day long. This has helped a great deal. Even while spending nearly half my hours on email, I've managed to get many other non-email tasks done more productively than before. This part has been a success and I highly recommend it. Shut down that email client!
  • I found myself doing three (or even four) email sessions per day. This is too many. I need to more strictly limit myself to reading email only twice a day, at the beginning and end of the day. If these sessions need to be longer it is better to make them longer but stick with only two. Whenever I started inserting email tasks in the middle of the day, it fragmented my concentration too much, making the day less productive.
  • I'm convinced the ideal arrangement is to do one single email session per day, at the end of the day. That way all the concentration disruption occurs after the days work is done, so it does no harm. The end of the day is also a good time to be entering new tasks into the to-do list so they'll be there tomorrow. Given our distributed time zones it is difficult to do only one email session per day, but that would be ideal. Maybe I'll try that at some point.

As a longer term goal I need to think of ways of reducing the time spent on email. Not sure how to do that yet but spending 45% or even "only" 37% of all working hours on email is totally insane. I suppose email overload is inevitable at a large company with tens of thousands of employees (all of whom, it seems at times, are emailing me) but there has to be a better way. I suppose I could cap my email time to an hour a day and let whatever goes unread just go unread. I'm sure people will be unhappy but will that unhappiness be greater than my productivity gain at doing real work? It's all about tradeoffs, after all. Hard to say what's worse.


Wonder how will Google Wave - http://wave.google.com/ change this situation?

Posted by Manish Kapur on August 12, 2009 at 01:07 PM PDT #

A fascinating record of your attempt to control e-mail. How did you measure the details showing on the graph?

Most importantly, what difference have you noticed to your ability to focus on the project at hand by minimising e-mail 'as an interruption'??

Steuart Snooks

Posted by Steuart Snooks on August 13, 2009 at 12:05 PM PDT #

I've been tracking time spent on various activities, so I know how much went into email vs. other things.

I'm finding a huge benefit in having several hours of time to dedicate to a specific task, instead of splitting the concentration by constantly shifting back and forth between the task and email.

Posted by Jyri Virkki on August 18, 2009 at 01:57 PM PDT #

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