This Thing You Use Every Day Is Ruining Your Productivity — and It's Not Facebook

by Paul Michael on 24 February 2014 1 comment

There's a lot of talk these days about the impact social media is having on our productivity in the workplace. If you work with a computer on a daily basis, as many of us do, you have the ability to check your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest accounts. (See also: How to Break Your Social Media Habit)

Although this is technically stealing time from your employer (unless you do it on your lunch break), most will look the other way if it's only for a few minutes out of the day. And those accounts don't eat up a lot of time. Facebook users spend about 30 minutes per day on the site, on average, and most of that is done outside of the work environment.

However, email is something many of us actively use at work. It's part of the job, and it's the main way to communicate these days.

But, there's a problem with email. It's more time consuming than a Facebook status update or a Tweet. It's also not as fun. Almost every email you receive at work will be about a project you're working on or will soon be working on. Emails take time to respond to, usually because they contain a request from someone else. And if that isn't enough, they're a drain on your energy and your morale. Answering email after email, hour after hour, can suck the life out of an employee who started the day quite upbeat. It can be relentless, and even disheartening. (See also: How to Maintain Motivation When the Going Gets Tough)

One of the most obvious ways to combat this is simple, but improbable in this day and age: Shut the email off, at least for a few days.

Of course, that will end in disaster for many. "Where's my report? Why hasn't the shipping problem been dealt with? We're losing an account, why isn't someone talking to our client?!"

So, knowing that we can't turn email off, what can we all do to stop email draining the life out of the office? Here are some handy tips to stop email from killing your productivity.

1. Don't Use Email as an Instant Messenger

I see a lot of emails that could easily be done as conversations in a meeting room, office, or a telephone call. In this day and age, it's very easy to just open up your email to shoot an idea off to somebody, but it's time consuming and keeps you in your email account. Once you're in there, it can be distracting. By all means use email to send important documents or instructions, but if it's simply "Hey, I was thinking of red for the front cover, how about you?" then you're wasting your time — and everybody else's.

2. Don't Send Ambiguous Emails

It's easy enough to shoot an email off with a half-hearted call to action. Or, none at all. But it you really want someone to react, and respond, to your email, use techniques that direct marketers use. Give people clear instructions. For example:

  • Please give your answer by 4 p.m. today.

  • Call me as soon as you have an answer.

  • Add your comments to this document and forward it by 11 a.m.

  • Read this email and reply within the hour.

If you cut the ambiguity, you won't be stuck checking your email every 10 minutes hoping you have the reply you so desperately need. (See also: Get the Response You Want With a Friendly Email)

3. Use the Notifications and Alerts Features

Constant email checking to see if someone has read and replied to your correspondence is a big motivation killer. But it doesn't have to be. Almost every email client gives you options to prioritize emails and to receive notification when the email has been read.

If you want the recipient to read the email immediately, tag it as high priority. If you want to make sure they've read it, turn on a feature called "receipts." There are two options: One lets you know the email has been received by the other party, and the other lets you know they have opened it. Using these features also alerts the addressee that you know they've received and read the email. Now they are prompted to act. And that saves you time and worry. (See also: Productivity Apps for Busy People)

4. Aim for Zero in Your Inbox at the End of Each Day

Someone stopped by my desk recently and asked what was wrong with my email. Nothing, I said. "Well, why aren't there any emails?" The answer is simple. I deal with emails in a way that many top managers do, and it's a time saver. I call it DARES, and it goes like this:

  • Delay: If you can't work on it now, put it in a "to do" file.

  • Act: If you can solve it immediately, do so.

  • Re-assign: If you can't work on it, forward it to someone who can.

  • Erase: If it's been dealt with, or you don't need it, delete it.

  • Store: Archive it into the correct folder, and move on.

5. Quit Email for a Few Hours a Day

The big problem with email is that it's always there. And it's always notifying you of new mail. It can be difficult to ignore, and that leads to a lack of thinking, and dedication, on projects that deserve your complete attention. So, for a couple of hours in the morning and afternoon, turn off your email. Give yourself time to really concentrate. The chances are, nothing is going to be so urgent it can't wait for two hours. But the benefits to you, and your job, could be invaluable.

Do you have any other advice on using email at work? Let us know.

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I only recently got a smartphone so there used to be large chunks of the day when I would be totally disconnected. It actually became a problem because people expect a near immediate response (meaning within an hour or two, half a day at the most). I missed out on one too many last minute and quick turn around opportunities before upgrading to the smartphone and making sure my alerts were ON!