Email and Productivity at Work

“I don’t check my e-mail, it checks me to see if I’m still there.” — Ian Pattison, poll respondent, Canada

“I never switch it off, and I also have a self-imposed policy of responding immediately if I’m sitting at my desk, however busy I am. ” — Wayne Andrews, poll respondent, United Arab Emirates

“I like getting email. It is a diversion from a tough job or from a boring task. Stopping every now and then to answer email is like taking a break. If one appears to be a time waster, it gets postponed for later. ” — Lester Stephenson, poll respondent, USA

As a productivity consultant, one of my chief concerns is what most of us mistakenly call “time management.” Obviously, time comes in preset amounts for everyone and we use it up whether we like it or not, so we can’t truly manage or conserve it as we can more tangible resources. Therefore, time management actually boils down to self management. The savvy worker finds ways to use time efficiently, refusing to waste it or allow external factors to monopolize it to the detriment of workplace productivity.

In all my productivity training talks and courses, I emphasize a measured response to email and other electronic disruptions as an essential time management technique. Among other things, I teach my clients to check their email just a few times a day. It seemed natural, then, to ask my LinkedIn colleagues how often they check their email, and I did just that in a poll that ended on September 30, 2011. I received 212 formal responses; in addition, 15 people left comments, including two who didn’t vote but made their choices clear. So in all, the poll logged 214 responses.

“All Day, Every Day. I Never Turn It Off” was far and away the most common choice (N = 135), beating the runner-up, “Every Hour” (N = 29), by more than one hundred votes! It garnered a full 63% of the responses, while “Every Hour” got just 13.6%. Two other options, “2-4 Times Daily” and “5-7 Times Daily,” got 22 and 24 votes (10.3% and 11.2% of the total). “Once” came in dead last with 4 votes (1.9%).

I would love to say that these results surprise me…but they don’t, really. I’ve long been aware of the obsessive allure of email, and how it has become one of the true timewasters of the modern office. Somehow, we find it almost impossible to mitigate our Pavlovian response to incoming messages. As a result, many of us are slaves to our inboxes, afraid we might miss something important if we don’t stay connected. Most of the time, this does nothing but shoot holes in our productivity.

That said, I do recognize the fact that email represents the lifeblood of many modern businesses. They not only get most of their orders via email, they also handle customer service through the same medium. Indeed, several commenters made it clear that their job requirements determine their email habits.

This time, the seniority of the respondents split right down the middle for all voting slots, with managers, owners, and C-Suite execs responding in numbers essentially equal to the “All Others” category. Similarly, the age breakdown yielded similar statistics for all four ranges (18-29, 30-36, 37-44, and 45+), with only the “Every Hour” and “5-7 Time Daily” results displaying notable variances. People 37 or older were more than twice as likely to check email hourly as their younger colleagues, while those 30-36 led the pack in checking 5-7 times a day. But I must point out that relatively few people voted for either choice.

The gender results proved interesting as well; the only choices with significant differences were “2-4 Times Daily” (13 men vs. 4 women, or a 76%-24% split) and “All Day” (56 men vs. 46 women, or 55% and 45%). Only 160 of the 214 responders provided their genders, with a breakdown of 90 men and 70 women—a ratio of about 56% to 44%.

LinkedIn provides nationalities only for commenters, since you can link directly back to their personal pages; everyone else remains anonymous. Now, I hesitate to peg Americans as the world leaders in over-checking email, since only 15 people commented and LinkedIn remains a mostly American phenomenon…but of those 15 commenters, nine (60%) hailed from the USA. Canada provided two of the other six, with the U.K., India, Brazil, and the United Arab Emirates rounding out the total.

These poll results demonstrate clearly that over-checking email remains a huge problem. At first glance, it may not seem like such a big deal to spend a minute here and there responding to email, but numerous studies (and my own 20 years of experience) have proven that constant connectivity stifles employee productivity. It’s one thing if you have to keep your email client open all day in order to do your job; but if you don’t, then you’re just damaging your productive potential by checking, checking, and rechecking hour after hour.

As always, thanks to everyone who participated in this poll. If you didn’t get a chance to vote, I’d love to hear what you have to say…by email, ironically!