How to Manage Digital Overwhelm (And Stay Sane in the Process!)

Email has become a standard commodity in modern day life. Just like death and taxes. Little did Ray Tomlinson, the man credited with “inventing” email in 1972, know that over 3.7 billion people would be using email and sending billions of messages daily! This accounts for nearly 54% of the world’s population! The rise of email has to do with our shared belief that it is less time consuming, more reliable, and more efficient than face-to-face meetings or phone calls. It also allows for asynchronous communication that facilitates collaboration with individuals irrespective of geography. Moreover, it enables the sharing of more information with more diverse sources when compared to the traditional single-channel meetings and memos (remember those!?). Ultimately email was seen as the ultimate savior in connecting more people more of the time. We, of course, know better now.

The email paradox

Alas, the “not-so-nice” side to email has, unfortunately, reared its ugly head. We continuously hear the cries of “overload” when we think about our inboxes that never seem to go away. Today, it is literally impossible to get emails down to “zero”. And even if you do, it is a moment of celebration that can last for not more than a second before torrents of new messages start pouring in.

Email overload is directly correlated with the number of emails received, the length of messages received, and the time that is required to process and respond. The immediacy of receiving has also caused pressure for people to respond quickly. It is also the culprit for generating many of the unanticipated tasks in our calendars. Email causes the innumerable number of interruptions we experience daily, leaving us feeling out of control when it comes to managing our time. Finally, email forces us to switch tasks continuously as well as challenges us to enact different roles simultaneously. We, in effect, lose our sense of focus and flow when in the midst of email. Flow, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who coined the term in 1975, is a mental state when one is fully immersed in a thought or action that is both energizing and focusing. It is in these times when we can lose our sense of time and space.

Human beings have a limited capacity to receive, interpret, assimilate, and apply information. When our limits are exceeded, our cognitive performance declines. This can be seen at slower speeds or the inability to make decisions, prioritize, or organize information, thoughts, and processes. Hence lies the “email paradox“. On the one hand, email has facilitated widespread information distribution and reduced information delays. On the other hand, it can overwhelm our processing capabilities and hence reduce our personal effectiveness. The can lead to feelings of stress, inefficiency, demotivation, and confusion.

The financial impact of email

Email volume is dependent on many factors including job characteristics and organizational culture. An average employee will receive slightly more than twice the number of messages they send. With our ability to send “one to many”, the marginal cost per message experienced by senders is dramatically reduced when compared to traditional tools like “snail mail”. As a result, senders enjoy a disproportionate share of the email benefits while email receivers bear the brunt of the proverbial costs.

For example, a typical employee will receive upwards of 350 email messages per week (70 messages per workday) while an executive will receive upwards of 300 messages a day! On average, one-third of messages received daily are considered unnecessary and can be quickly deleted. The other necessary messages will require anywhere from 2-5 minutes to process as they need to be read and responded to with attention to proper word choices, correct spelling and grammar, and the correct recipient list. This all takes time. In fact, the average employee will spend approximately 2.9 hours/ day on email while an executive can spend upwards of 10.8 hours!

In addition to the time and energy involved in reading and responding to another’s information request, recipients also tend to interrupt their own work to continuously monitor incoming emails to satisfy senders’ expectations of a timely reply. Studies have shown that an employee will take 24 minutes, on average, to get back into the groove of their work after checking email. They will also check email at least 50 times per day and use instant messaging, on average, 77 times during the same time period. These numbers are steadily increasing as we incorporate the “internet of things” into everything we do. The average worker will lose at least 6 hours per week to email interruptions and 2 hours per week to processing unnecessary email. This is a total productivity loss of 8 hours per week just on email alone. The comes out to 392 hours per year-per employee. For an organization with 50,000 employees, this can translate to an approximate loss of $1B in productive employee time!

Email and its effects on cognitive performance

In addition to corporate financial losses, other employee productivity parameters are also affected. The average employee, while distracted by email, exhibit twice the degradation in IQ scores during the task execution. This the same IQ scores that are achieved by an individual who has just smoked marijuana! The use of IQ scores has been used historically by psychologists when comparing performance in distracted versus non-distracted states. They refer to the degradation in focal task performance as “dual-task interference” when an individual tries to perform a second task simultaneously.

In the tech-driven world in which we live and the increased pressure to “empty our inboxes”, we are forever multi-tasking. This can be seen in checking email while in meetings or texting while driving. It starts in the morning when checking our social feeds while, at the same time, feeding our dog or going to the bathroom. We kid ourselves into believing that doing multiple tasks at the same time somehow increases our productivity. The sad reality is that studies completely disprove this belief.

It has been noted that “high media multitaskers” who frequently engage in five or more simultaneous information streams score poorly on standard judgment, recall and reaction times when compared to “low media multi-taskers“. Other studies of “task switching” and “interruptions” both show similar results. The scary thing, however, is that multitaskers and task switchers usually feel “more confident” about their performance than those engaging with less divergent efforts. Unfortunately, decision-makers who are bombarded with more information feel more confident about their decision making than those with access to less information. Sadly, the “information rich” people usually end up making worse decisions. Continuous churning through email has given us a false sense of “control” over our work. We have also internalized the cultural belief that more information is better, safer and more reliable. Little did we know that besides the possibility of “paralysis by analysis”, more information has actually numbed our higher faculties.

It is recognized that an individual’s information-processing capacity will vary over time. It can fluctuate with mental and physical energy levels as well as other external conditions. Our natural limitations for information perception, interpretation and judgment are exacerbated by our common email practices of constant interruptions, task-switching, and multi-tasking. Our daily routines of consuming social media, text messages, and email has eroded our capacity to assimilate and apply new knowledge, to successfully accomplish tasks, and to make decisions. Unfortunately, our boosted self-confidence, buoyed by the banks of “at your fingertips” information delays our recognition of underperformance due to overload.

When we finally realize that, despite our best efforts, we are underperforming, the tragic reality of “overwhelm” sets in. “Overload” is a multi-dimensional experience incorporating factors such as time, tasks, relationships and a sense of control, or lack thereof. In technical terms, overload can be defined as a condition where the cognitive demands associated with information processing exceeds an individual’s information processing capacity. Our cognitive performance decline can be detected by our inability to make accurate “signal-noise” distinctions and situation assessments. In addition, we become less efficient in making high-quality decisions. When we hit the “overwhelm” stage, it can affect our long-term memory, attention levels, comprehension, retention, and recall. Overload can also result in an individual experiencing exhaustion, poor physical health, reduced relationship satisfaction, and other psychosomatic symptoms.

How email can contribute to social overload

Another key component in the paradigm of digital communication is the level of “social” overwhelm that it has created. Although we are social animals, social overload can occur when the number and variety of social exposures and the associated social information received exceeds an individual’s interaction capacity. In our older more traditional work environments, when people worked in offices, workers would use the physical barriers, the walls, doors and the distance between employees, as ways to segregate, contain and “serialize” their interactions and their accompanying role demands. These structures, in effect, created the container that people needed to protect their personal boundaries and to give them a refuge in which to recharge.

With the new world of “hoteling”, reservable workspaces, virtual offices, and co-working spaces, there is less protection and more pressure to be available at all times. It is interesting to note that people living in more densely-populated urban areas have a tendency to unconsciously contract the physical range of their social circle, effectively limiting their number of relationships and day-to-day encounters. This is their way of creating “space” in their day in order to recharge and decompress. These same individuals, in contrast, will increase the density of their computer-mediated world in order to further expand their circle of online encounters. No wonder we see individuals engrossed in their tablets and phones even when in the midst of family members or colleagues. We become more attached to our virtual world and social connections as we have unconsciously detached from the real world in order to protect our limited capacity for social interaction.

The lines between when and how to engage in professional social media sites, such as LinkedIn, social sites, such as Facebook and Instagram, and company chat rooms, such as Yammer or Slack, have blurred. We are spending time at work updating our Snapchat account and time at home connecting with colleagues from overseas. In practice the boundaries between these domains are becoming less distinct, further increasing the social load employees encounter during work hours. In any given hour of the workday, one may receive messages from one’s boss, spouse, client, child’s soccer coach, vendor, child, dentist, friend, organization, and former classmate, each with a unique request and a particular time horizon for responding. Not only do we have to cognitively-process the content of the message and reply appropriately, but each interaction must be prioritized within the broader ecology of one’s relational life. Work-life balance has transmuted into work-life integration.

How to assess and manage email overload

There are a series of assessments and suggested ways to monitor and manage email overload. The first step is to take an inventory of the number, length, type, and importance of emails that are received within a specific period of time. Next, one must determine the amount of time that it is taking to process each message type, and the time required to complete any tasks necessary to respond to the received messages. Other dependent variables include the average time per day that is spent processing email communication, both within and outside of regular work hours, the average elapsed time between message receipt and message response for each message type, and the proportion of each day’s messages that go unread.

Descriptive statistics of an employee’s interaction partners over the course of a workday and the number of different social contexts represented by these contacts should also be evaluated. Subjective data, such as ratings of perceived ‘stress’ or feeling ‘focused’ versus ‘fragmented’ at intervals throughout the study period (e.g. hourly, daily) should be evaluated and tracked. These ratings would then need to be mapped against the social density of the interval (ie. the number of unique message senders and the number of discrete social contexts represented by that interval’s message senders).

It could also be useful to measure the time required to compose response messages and the appropriateness and tone of the language used. Did they remember to add the attachment they mentioned? Did they include the right individuals in the recipient list? As individuals become socially overloaded, they may become less adept at making role transitions. Consequently, it may require an employee longer to compose a relationally-appropriate response or they may respond quickly but without making the appropriate shifts in vocabulary and tone. It is important to note that when employee’s interaction density increases due to multiple professional and personal roles, they can have a more difficult time with “recovery” strategies. This can lead to less ability to psychologically detach, relax, and master their feelings of autonomy.

There are a few strategies that some organizations have incorporated as a means to manage email overload, many with varying degrees of effectiveness and impact. A few of these are:

  • Filtering and message threading
  • Organization email policies incorporating communication restrictions (ie no email on weekends)
  • Subject line rules, “to” vs “CC” prioritization, batch processing, email emptying software (ie. sanebox), disable notifications, auto-responders, and guidelines on media to use for communication as well as for when and how often
  • Rules to use instant messaging and internal chat platforms for task-related communication while reserving email for broadcast, non-time sensitive content, or to document decisions
  • Rules on how and when chat platforms should be used, how and when to use “out of office” or “don’t disturb” notifiers.

Interestingly, enough, companies are also leveraging synchronous channels such as web meetings to create a sense of proximal interactions which is often missing in our virtual world. People still want to feel “connected” to the greater ecosystem in which they work and with the people, they are collaborating with. Working in vacuums or in “transient offices” where the average employee feels like a displaced person, has caused many workers to migrate to coffee shops in order to stay motivated and connected with other human beings.

The exciting future of digital communication

In addition, increased numbers of company branded portals to incorporate threaded projects and to capture tribal knowledge among colleagues and customers in the form of advisory boards and working groups have surfaced recently. These are excellent asynchronous forums that reduce email overload as project work can be captured in private, company branded, online spaces. Convenient, asynchronous communication, sharing, and collaboration can occur unobtrusively. These types of online environments can assist in giving each individual processing time to respond without feeling the pressure to give a knee-jerk reaction to an email or text message request. These kinds of portals provide the right balance between adequate social density while maintaining individual boundaries and structure to recharge. Private online portals have dramatically increased the level of customer engagement and brand advocacy as a result.

Email will continue to drive our work and life. It is here to stay. But that’s a good thing as digital communication has expanded our data exchange to a level never previously imaginable. As we step on the precipice of artificial intelligence, the need for rapid information exchange and big data analysis becomes even more pronounced. It is up to us now to leverage these tools, email included so that they optimize our life potential and don’t deter our personal and professional progress. By taking active measures to monitor our sources of information, work, and social overload, we can create solutions to combat overwhelm and to protect our decision making prowess.

Guest post provided by Impetus. Click here to see a printable version of this post, including references.

Want to hear more from Impetus? Join them at the 10th Digital Pharma Europe conference as their Managing Director, Natalie Yeadon, leads the session “The Psychology of Digital Collaboration.”

Leave a Reply