One of the worst causes of information overload is the constant arrival of email into the knowledge worker’s attention sphere. With new mail arriving every few minutes, people can never fully focus on their work. If they haven’t turned off the “you’ve got mail” alerts they are passively distracted; if they have, a sizable fraction of users still distract themselves by checking for new email every few minutes. What is needed is a way to prevent this checking.
A radical email overload solution concept
Over my years of helping companies fight information overload I’ve devised my share of original solutions; many were successfully adopted, but some were too radical for that. One of the most extreme has been batching email delivery at the server; so radical that it was never accepted for implementation by any organization I’ve ever advised. Even so, I’ll share it with you: perhaps you can use it to good advantage, or perhaps it will trigger useful thoughts that will lead you to initiate other solutions.
Here’s the idea: since many people lack the discipline and willpower not to check their Inbox compulsively for new mail every few minutes, let’s deliver the mail to their Inbox less frequently. For instance, we can have IT change settings at the email server so that messages will be batched and only sent to the clients once an hour.
A valid objection and its solution
No organization would accept that urgent messages might be delayed up to one hour. Thus, a workaround for identifying urgent messages and exempting them from the delay would of course need to be included. For example, a filter could be implemented that would let through without delay urgent messages (these might be identified by the “importance” flag, or by having the email hashtag #HOT in the subject). Or mail from external customers might automatically be exempted. Details could be worked out and fine tuned; but the large mass of internal, non-urgent emails would be delivered only a few times a day.
Implementing such a solution would involve changes to the server’s software – not an afternoon coding task, but certainly doable by the IT group of any respectable enterprise.
Another variation: we could allow senders to request exceptions (instant delivery) for specific messages, with a mechanism to de-motivate abuse, such as monitoring usage of this option or charging a fee for instant delivery (similar to the higher cost of express snail mail). Some intriguing possibilities come to mind if you think about it…
Change is in the air
Recently there are signs that companies may become more amenable to this solution category. The case that comes to mind is Volkswagen, where they turn off the BlackBerry servers after formal work hours; this means employees can’t receive email on their BlackBerries in their evenings and weekends. The messages are thus batched until the next workday. Admittedly the benefit here is to Work/Life balance, not to work time effectiveness; but it’s a start, and of course more Life is invaluable to better Work.
What you can do about this
Actually, you need to be either very senior in the organization (or an incredibly effective change agent) to get such a policy implemented; if you are, do consider it – the potential productivity benefits are far-reaching. The next best thing you can do is to achieve the batching for yourself by not synchronizing your mail – assuming your mail client allows this – in real time, and instead setting it to pull in new messages from the server at the desired interval. This could support the strategy of only checking email a few predefined times a day, which I highly recommend in any case as an individual strategy. I myself use manual synchronization and pull my mail at judiciously chosen times to match my time management strategy and work needs.
If you’ve seen a solution in this vein implemented, let us all know in the comments; if you’d like to do it in your group, give me a call!