E-mail is Making You Stupid

By Reuters Staff
March 2, 2010

– Joe Robinson, a business coach and trainer, is the author of “Work to Live” and the audio CD “The Email Overload Survival Kit”. This article originally appeared on Entrepreneur.com

The research is overwhelming. Constant e-mail interruptions make you less productive, less creative and – if you’re e-mailing when you’re doing something else – just plain dumb.

Within the heart of your company, saboteurs lurk. Disguised as instruments of productivity, they are subverting your staff’s most precious resource: attention. Incessant e-mail alerts, instant messages, buzzing BlackBerrys and cell phones are decimating workplace concentration. The average information worker – basically anyone at a desk – loses 2.1 hours of productivity every day to interruptions and distractions, according to Basex, an IT research and consulting firm.

That time is money. Computer chip giant Intel, for one, has estimated that e-mail overload can cost large companies as much as $1 billion a year in lost employee productivity. The intrusions are constant: each day a typical office employee checks e-mail 50 times and uses instant messaging 77 times, according to RescueTime, a firm that develops time-management software. Such interruptions don’t just sidetrack workers from their jobs, they also undermine their attention spans, increase stress and annoyance and decrease job satisfaction and creativity.

The interruption epidemic is reaching a crisis point at some companies and shows no sign of slowing. E-mail volume is growing at a rate of 66 percent a year, according to the E-Policy Institute. More people are texting. More are using Facebook or Twitter for work.

“It’s worse than it’s ever been,” says Michelle Rupp, owner of NRG Seattle, an insurance brokerage with a staff of 12 who feel pounded by the avalanche of messaging. “It’s so hard to stay focused. Everything bings and bongs and tweets at you, and you don’t think.”

Yes, it is possible to blunt the interruption assault. But business leaders must go on the offensive in a realm most are oblivious to: interruption management.

The Myth of Multitasking

Human brains come equipped with two kinds of attention: involuntary and voluntary. Involuntary attention, designed to be on the watch for threats to survival, is triggered by outside stimuli–what grabs you. It’s automatically rattled by the workday cacophony of rings, pings and buzzes that are turning jobs into an electronic game of Whac-a-Mole. Voluntary attention is the ability to concentrate on a chosen task.

As workers’ attention spans are whipsawed by interruptions, something insidious happens in the brain: Interruptions erode an area called effortful control and with it the ability to regulate attention. In other words, the more you check your messages, the more you feel the need to check them–an urge familiar to BlackBerry or iPhone users.

“Technology is an addiction,” says Gayle Porter, a professor of management at Rutgers University who has studied e-compulsion. “If someone can’t turn their BlackBerry off, there’s a problem.”

The cult of multitasking would have us believe that compulsive message-checking is the behavior of an always-on, hyper-productive worker. But it’s not. It’s the sign of a distracted employee who misguidedly believes he can do multiple tasks at one time. Science disagrees. People may be able to chew gum and walk at the same time, but they can’t do two or more thinking tasks simultaneously.

Say a salesman is trying to read a new e-mail while on the phone with a client. Those are both language tasks that have to go through the same cognitive channel. Trying to do both forces his brain to switch back and forth between tasks, which results in a “switching cost,” forcing him to slow down. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that productivity dropped as much as 40 percent when subjects tried to do two or more things at once. The switching exacts other costs too – mistakes and burnout. One of the study’s authors, David Meyer, asserts bluntly that quality work and multitasking are incompatible.

Brian Bailey and Joseph Konstan of the University of Minnesota discovered that sleeve-tugging peripheral tasks triggered twice the number of errors and jacked up levels of annoyance to anywhere between 31 percent and 106 percent. Their interrupted test workers also took 3 percent to 27 percent more time to complete the reading, counting or math problems. In fact, the harder the interrupted task, the harder it was to get back on track. (A Microsoft study suggests it takes a worker 15 minutes to refocus after an interruption.)

The damaging effects spread well beyond the office cubicle. Kate LeVan, a communications consultant in Evanston, Ill., coaches executives whose brains are so scrambled by electronic interruptions that they stumble during key face-to-face interactions: board meetings, investor pitches, sales presentations. “They can’t have an extended conversation for more than a few minutes,” LeVan says. “That’s the impact of having all this data going back and forth. They have problems in conversation because they can’t focus.”

Here’s how the brain behaves when your attention slips away from a task: The hippocampus, which manages demanding cognitive tasks and creates long-term memories, kicks the job down to the striatum, which handles rote tasks. So the gum-chewing part of the brain is now replying to the boss’s e-mail. This is why you wind up addressing e-mails to people who weren’t supposed to get them. Or sending messages rife with typos.

The striatum is the brain’s autopilot. And no part of your business should be allowed to run on autopilot.

Paying Attention to Paying Attention

In her 2009 book Rapt, Winifred Gallagher argues that humans are the sum of what they pay attention to: What we focus on determines our experience, knowledge, amusement, fulfillment. Yet instead of cultivating this resource, she says, we’re squandering it on “whatever captures our awareness.” To truly learn something, and remember it, you have to pay full attention.

E-interruptions are making it so hard to do that that Google, Microsoft, IBM and Intel are members of the Information Overload Research Group, formed in 2008 to collaborate on research, develop best practices and host forums to share new approaches. It’s self-preservation as much as anything; computer engineers were among the first to show symptoms of e-interruption exposure.

Ten years ago, Harvard Business School’s Leslie Perlow famously chronicled the interruption of a high-tech software company. Its engineers were interrupted so often they had to work nights and weekends. After studying the workplace for nine months, the source of the dysfunction became clear: No one could get anything done because of the bombardment of messages. Perlow came up with an intervention: Quiet Time. For four hours in the morning, the 17 engineers worked alone. All messaging and phone contact was banned. In the afternoon, communication could resume. Given time to concentrate, the engineers got a project for a color printer completed without the graveyard shift.

Intel is using Quiet Time at two of its sites. Other companies, including U.S. Cellular and Deloitte & Touche, have mandated less e-mail use, encouraged more face-to-face contact and experimented with programs such as “no e-mail Friday.” The results often are surprising: employees build rapport with colleagues–and they save time. Co-workers can settle something in a two-minute phone conversation that might have required three e-mails per person. Each change reverberates throughout a company, especially since–as a University of California, Irvine, study found – 44 percent of interruptions an employee experiences are from within the company.

Nearly everyone needs such boundaries to get anything done in this 24/7 work world. Count Chad Willardson among the converted. He’s a senior financial advisor at Merrill Lynch Private Wealth Management Group and operates a financial services practice with a partner for Merrill in Riverside, Calif. He used to check for new messages every five minutes, a potential 96 interruptions during an eight-hour day.

“The more I checked e-mail,” he says, “the more anxious I would feel over every request and question.” Now he checks e-mail manually, and only four times a day at prescribed hours – the schedule that Oklahoma State University researchers describe as optimum. He says he gets a lot more done, is more in control of his calendar and feels much less stressed.

In fact, stress-management seminars often reveal executives driven to wits’ end by their own inboxes. During one session at the aerospace company Lockheed Martin, many managers vented this frustration–until one raised his hand. “It’s not a problem for me,” he said. “I’ve gotten my e-mail checking down to twice a day.”

He explained that his staff knew he preferred to communicate by phone and they don’t send him e-mail unless it’s important that the information be in writing. And because he checked e-mail only twice daily, they had been weaned from the idea that they’d get an instant reply.

Chances are this wasn’t just good for the manager, but for all his employees, too. By modeling interruption-management, he was likely reducing the volume of interruptions throughout his division. Everyone understood that he viewed excessive messages as a drain on his performance – and by extension, theirs.

One thing was clear that day at Lockheed: When the manager volunteered his solution, it was as if he’d levitated. Other managers looked stunned. And envious.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

As someone who finds myself spending more and more time responding to e-mails, I could not agree more with this article. There are some days where 20% of my day is spent answering e-mails.

Posted by BB1978 | Report as abusive

[...] earthquake do? – BlueCross of N.C. saw profit drop 42 percent in 2009. – E-mail is making you stupid. – Postman delivers some bad news. Share and [...]

Coming from an engineering perspective this article is something I realized 10 years ago. Good decisions take concentration and productive work takes all the effort of the person doing the work. Again we have been led astray by some people who had very little business knowledge and wanted two days work for the price of one. The sad part is that our children are learning this method and not learning what they are supposed to in school. Isn’t technology wonderful?

Posted by fred5407 | Report as abusive

[...] and cellphone might be small distractions, but they can add up to big losses for your business. Reuters reports today that interruptions and distractions cost the average desk worker 2.1 hours of [...]

Success in the future will go to those who develop successful strategies for managing information overload. We can’t afford to be passive about it. We need to observe which communications and reminders help and which get in the way. For instance, I find IM and texting to be a distraction and only give out my contact info to a precious few. On the other hand, I found this blog post via Google Alerts. When it works FOR us, technology is indeed wonderful.

Posted by juliastewart | Report as abusive

Several years ago, when I was at a small research firm, we recognized the “power of interruption”. The researchers and analysts, up against tight delivery dates for mentally demanding reports, were losing their minds and precious time due to frequent interruptions. Interruptions also opened them up to additional distractions, and recovery time was significant. We put into place a few simple signaling rules (e.g., signs on office doors with availability time, “busy” status on instant messenger) and expectations for respecting those signals. It made an extraordinary difference and allowed us to grow our project volume by 300% in a six month time period with only a 100% increase in staff. and everyone felt more satisfaction in being able to complete projects with less homework.

Posted by JeffreyH | Report as abusive

Twice reading this article I interrupted myself to check e-mails…

Posted by nftdnotes | Report as abusive

There are many unintended consequences of the internet, some of which are harmful, including dumbing down the ability to communicate. Also, the USPS has been seriously impaired by the loss of first class mail due to e-mail.

Posted by pilgrimson | Report as abusive

[...] and cellphone might be small distractions, but they can add up to big losses for your business. Reuters reports today that interruptions and distractions cost the average desk worker 2.1 hours of [...]

Email has also become an excuse for weak managers to sit in their office under the self-deceptive impression that they are busy getting a lot of work done, when in fact they are just blowing smoke by dumping a lot of junk on others.

Some people actually get promoted for answering a lot of emails. Forget about actually executing tangible work activities.

Posted by rror | Report as abusive

[...] growth – Reuters: Mid to late 20s best age to have a first baby: poll – Reuters Small Business: E-mail is Making You Stupid – Reuters UK Football: Wealthy fans plan Man Utd bid, owners won’t sell – NYT: Writing a [...]

Very, very true. Watch in an elevator. Does anyone speak or is everyone looking at their device of choice. Try this:


I did this and it really helped.

Posted by bridgeport | Report as abusive

So, e-mail makes me less productive, not stupid.

Great headline.

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

I have to side with rror a little here. It’s up to each person to responsibly manage their own communications. It’s true, e-mail, text messages, instant messages all alert us to a new communication in real time. However, it’s up to us to respond to those alerts at an appropriate moment.

If you’re concentrating on something, you don’t have to answer your e-mail or check your blackberry until a time when it’s convenient. In fact, it’s not 1995 anymore…by now we should be globally a little more aware of the fact that technology interrupts us, and manage ourselves accordingly.

We control the technology–not the other way around. Unless of course, we choose for it to control us. But that’s up to the individual–and their management.


Posted by papercutpm | Report as abusive

[...] and cellphone might be small distractions, but they can add up to big losses for your business. Reuters reports today that interruptions and distractions cost the average desk worker 2.1 hours of [...]

[...] others, but, we can relate to the effect that distractions have on our performance. Reuters reports that interruptions and distractions cost the average desk worker 2.1 hours of productivity [...]

[...] estimates that the average worker loses 2.1 hours of productivity every day to interruptions and distractions.  To avoid wasting time begin by prioritizing your week.  While it’s true that unexpected [...]

[...] estimates that the average worker loses 2.1 hours of productivity every day to interruptions and distractions.  To avoid wasting time begin by prioritizing your week.  While it’s true that unexpected [...]

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[...] estimates that the average worker loses 2.1 hours of productivity every day to interruptions and distractions.  To avoid wasting time begin by prioritizing your week.  While it’s true that unexpected [...]