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The Horrible Truth About Email Productivity

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Email productivity. Those may sound like a contradiction in terms. Is it possible to be productive when using email, or is email a technology that is doomed to waste your time?

A blog posted at The Guardian cites a typical claim:

“the average employee spends 40% of their working week dealing with internal emails which add no value to the business.”

That suggestion is supported by a variety of other organizations, including a digital signage company and a massive infographic from a software firm.

It was repeated in 2011 by Inc. Magazine, who says that Employees Are Unproductive Half the Day (because of email), as well as by The Weekly Gripe, the British edition of HR Magazine and the online component of The Today Show and more.

It seems practically everybody thinks email is stupid and that we should send less of it.

They couldn’t be more wrong.


© Flickr user basheertome

Here’s the terrible secret to the email productivity crisis. Reducing the amount of email—or getting of email entirely—will only make the problem worse.

That’s because we all have a need to communicate, we are just using the available channels inefficiently. It’s easy to write an email (just type, from anywhere) and easy to read it (just scroll, from anywhere), so we don’t take any effort to respect the medium.

We don’t try to use email intelligently or write emails in a way that’s respectful to our audience. Instead, we just dump our thoughts onto the screen and scramble to deal with the next message.

To understand this better, think of another communication technology: the telephone.

telephone cord

© Flickr user comedynose

Here’s how the telephone works. First: before you call someone up you have to have something to talk about. That’s because you’re going to use up their time while you are both on the phone. It’s pretty embarrassing to call without a plan, so we actually think about what we are going to do.

Second: There are some basic rules of telephone etiquette. You don’t start by barking commands. Instead, you ask to speak to the person you need. Or if you’ve already reached them, you ask them if it’s a convenient time to speak. Likewise, you don’t answer the phone by groaning “what-do-you-want” or repeated heavy breathing.

Third: You don’t try to do things on the phone that don’t make sense for the telephone. You don’t try to describe the key elements of a diagram that would be better seen in person. You don’t read a novel to someone word for word. Instead, you suggest they read it on their own time so you can discuss it later.

Finally: You don’t use the telephone in a way that is obviously inane, like calling someone who shares the same cubicle with you. Nor do you utilize conference calling just so your boss knows you are busy, or leave long rambling voicemail messages because you’re too lazy to plan what you’re going to say.

That would be completely unprofessional. And yet…


© Flickr user

We commit all of these sins of laziness with email, and more.

Do you want to stop “wasting” 40% of your day on email? Stop doing these things:

  • Replying to email the instant you receive it, turning it into instant messaging.
    (If it’s really that critical, they shouldn’t have sent an email. Make them wait.)
  • Cc-ing your boss to prove you are working.
    (That’s not an email problem, that’s a you-have-a-terrible-job problem.)
  • Replying to an old message with a new topic but leaving the subject unchanged.
    (Instead, start a new email.)
  • Forgetting the attachment.
    (Are you really in this much of a hurry? And why are you using attachments, anyway?)
  • Using email to conduct policy discussions
    (Have a meeting. Most communication is non-verbal, and the most of the rest is verbal. Very little can be captured in written words alone.)
  • Using Reply-All?
    (You should almost NEVER use Reply-All.)

No, the problem is not email. The problem is how we email.

Change the way you write and read email, and you’ll help change the culture. Cut email out, and you’ll shift the problem somewhere else.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter


Troublemaker and productivity/workflow expert. Slightly more complex than 140 characters will permit.
@lorraineball First probably depends on the business. But second is likely training, especially with regard to sales. - 4 weeks ago
Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter

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