Email and Productivity at Work, Part II

“My first reading of an e-mail is actually a screening process to determine what needs attention…I’ll decide on the spot what to delete and what needs that second reading prior to taking action.” — Junior Morales, poll respondent, Puerto Rico

“Depends on the message. If it’s spam or FYI, then once is enough. If it’s asking specific questions that need thought and/or research to answer, then as often as needed until it’s clear how to proceed. ” — Davyd Breeskin, poll respondent, Washington, D.C.

Several months ago, I posted a poll on LinkedIn asking how many times a day my followers checked their email. The results were rather eye-opening, and as you may recall, I blogged about them in early October 2011. Because I found those answers so intriguing, I posted a follow-up poll in December, asking, “On average, how many times do you read an email before doing anything with it?”

Once again, the troops came through with some very interesting responses. This time I got a total of 46 votes and six thoughtful comments—a somewhat lighter response than normal, but then again, it was the holiday season.

As you may recall, those who answered the earlier poll tend to check their email more often than I recommend—in fact, 63% admitted to checking it throughout the day, never turning their email off, while another 13.6% said they check email hourly. But happily, it appears (based on the current poll results) that while my respondents may check their email a bit too often, they usually don’t damage their personal productivity by obsessing over the individual messages. A total of 17 voters (37%) read each email only once before doing something with it, as most productivity training schemas teach (including mine). Twenty-six voters (57%) review each email twice, while just three (7%) check each email three times. No one voted for the other categories, “Four times” and “Five times”—thank goodness!

The voters didn’t deliver any real surprises this time on the demographics front. Generally, I get a more-or-less even split between management (including C-Suite and business owners) and everyone else; this time, the votes skewed just a bit toward the rank and file. As usual, among those who identified their gender, men voted slightly more often than women did: 18 vs. 13 (58% vs. 42%). It still surprises me how often LinkedIn members fail to include gender on their poll profiles; this time, 15 voters (almost a third of the total) preferred to remain gender-anonymous. The age breakdown was roughly equal across the categories, at least for the 21 voters—fewer than half— who provided their ages (an omission I can more easily understand!). The number of voters varied from 4-6 per age category; the differences are too small, really, to consider them significant, given the limited statistical sample.

The same proved mostly true for the vote breakdowns within the answer categories as well; though I will say that three-quarters of the voters for “Only once” were men, and voters in upper management proved significantly less likely than their subordinates to look at their email more than once. At the risk of extrapolating from insufficient data, the latter seems reasonable, since upper-level employees are usually better at time management.

And make no mistake: as a general rule, the better your time management skills, the less time you waste handling the information that crosses your desk. This assumes, of course, that you give each piece of information your full attention while deciding its fate—and then dismiss it from your mind, so you can move on to the next without bias or distraction. This rule holds true not just for email, but for all forms of information: voicemail, paperwork, verbal orders…and just about anything else you can imagine.

So: how would you vote? If you didn’t participate in this poll, I’d still like to hear what you have to say. Just leave a comment and let me know!