Today's LA Times has a big front page story that isn't really news: We're being driven nuts by email. I say it's not news because, well, don't you know this already?
It's not news that email is interfering with our ability to get work done. You know how distracting it is to stop what you're working on, read and respond to an email, then try to get back into the task at hand. Have you noticed how it's getting harder and harder to stick with the task at hand for more than ten minutes at a time? Whether it's writing a report, building a budget or analyzing a new pile of data, our internet devices are training us to work in short spurts and bullet points. Nicholas Carr's article, Is Google Making us Stupid? in the current Atlantic Monthly puts the phenomenon in sobering historical context. The internet is actually rewiring our brains.
But they're saying email is reducing worker productivity, and I'm not convinced of that. Is that productivity really declining, or is something else going on? After all, Bureau of Labor Stats data shows that worker productivity has consistently risen nearly every quarter in recent years. The first quarter of 2008 saw another 2.4% rise in business sector productivity.
I think we feel overwhelmed by our email because we're simply overwhelmed by work. Downsizing means we have fewer people doing the same amount of work, and sometimes more. As revenues shrink, people are laid off and those who are left have to do more with fewer resources, sometimes with lower pay. No wonder we feel stretched to the limit.
What's more, back in the day (before my time, for sure), we used to have administrative staff to handle the most mundane communications. Now it all flies directly into our inboxes, along with listserv announcements we never read, notices from our favorite blogs and stores, and all those winning the UK lottery notices.
Yes, there's too much email. But the problem of people feeling overwhelmed by it is more than just the technology itself. By all means, learn how to manage your email better (here are some tips from Harvard Business School). While we're at it, though, let's look at the bigger picture of what's stressing us out in the workplace.
While you do that, I'll check my email.