Is Email Overload Killing Your Productivity?

Email OverloadAt the tail end of last year, I spoke at the Internal Social Media Forum in Madrid, Spain, where I met Luis Saurez, Knowledge Manager, Community Builder & Social Computing Evangelist in the IBM Software Group division. Two and a half years ago, he developed plan to show his coworkers just how dependent they really were on e-mail, emphasizing how many times a day they were compelled to check it, and proving that it was no longer a productivity tool, but a procrastinator’s best friend. He’s advocated for social software to replace e-mail as the go-to communication method. And in fact, in less than three years, he’s been able to reduce 90% of his incoming e-mail by communicating through social software.

E-mail is simultaneously the most used business application and (has been labeled) the number one “killer” of productivity. According to a new infographic, businesses lose $650 billon a year due to unnecessary emails, with the average worker costing his or her employer an annual $10,000 because of distractions such as emailing. For those professional interested in the recent discussions around employee productivity, this is a very compelling number.

The infographic (created by  illustrates the story of Atos, a French technology company, who will soon ban internal email. CEO Thierry Breton estimates that only 10 percent of the average 200 emails his employees receive every day are “useful” and Atos has already reduced its internal emails by 20 percent over the last six months.

I have to say that, as much as I’d love to be like Luis or Atos by completely replacing traditional e-mail with social technologies, my current corporate culture simply hasn’t  changed enough to sustain that kind of detachment for a variety of reasons: 1) while I consider ourselves progressive in the implementation of social tools, we still don’t quite have the technical infrastructure to collaborate solely through social media, wikis, and online chat; and 2) our employee demographics simply haven’t adjusted to the level of adoption to social tools that would be required to remove e-mail as our primary communications tool.

Three Issues that Cause Email Overload and How to Fix Them

Problem #1: Lack of e-mail prioritization

The root cause of the e-mail overload problem is us, our powerful psychological tendencies. Fear and uncertainty and/or the need for instant gratification are powerful drivers for constantly checking one‟s e-mail. These taken together with a constant flow of e-mail encourage unproductive behaviors which include interrupting your concentration and your work to check e-mail, wasting time and impairing decision-making.