McCLANAHAN: Does e-mail boost or bust productivity?

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CJ Mcclanahan

I have a few business associates who like to talk.

Every time I return their phone calls, I make certain that I have at least 15 minutes to kill because no matter how simple and straightforward the topic of conversation, it lasts longer than I think it should.

As a result, I try my best to respond to all of their requests via e-mail. I can answer a simple question in seconds that would otherwise result in a 15-minute conversation.

Each day, all of us are faced with similar interactions with prospects, clients, co-workers and employees. E-mail allows us to eliminate hours of phone conversations and this has significantly improved productivity.

In addition, the typical workday provides us with multiple opportunities to send documents to others. These individuals can review, make revisions and respond with their thoughts within minutes. This simple process would take days via the U.S. mail. This is another great example of e-mail improving productivity.

E-mail is a very effective tool for handling these typical business interactions.

However, the more I deal with e-mail, the more I believe that, despite these extremely valuable benefits, e-mail is hurting our ability to effectively grow our businesses.

Here’s why:

E-mail (like texting, Facebook and Twitter) has created a culture of business professionals that are absolutely addicted to instant gratification.

When a thought or concept comes into our mind, we feel the immediate need to communicate this to another person. And in 2010 we fully expect that they will respond to our thought instantaneously.

Many will argue that this is no big deal. They insist that in today’s workplace there is value in being in constant communication with everyone all the time.

They are wrong. And as leaders it’s important that we understand why this is hurting productivity.

The problem with constant communication is that it prevents us from concentrating on any one task for more than a few minutes.  For example, imagine that you are in the middle of reviewing a complex spreadsheet filled with numbers, formulas and calculations. At the bottom right hand corner of your computer screen a little envelope suddenly appears.

Instead of ignoring this image you look over and think, “Somebody sent me a little present—I can’t wait to see what it is!” Moments later, you open your e-mail and realize that you were just being CC’d on a topic that has nothing to do with your job.

Disappointed, you close your e-mail and resume the spreadsheet analysis. Even though this distraction took only seconds, your brain wonders, “Now, where was I?” as you pull up the document.

Unfortunately, the same people who believe that constant communication is valuable are also convinced that the modern professional is fully capable of successfully multitasking (e.g., working on a spreadsheet while checking your e-mail).

This is only correct if the work being completed doesn’t require a high degree of intellect or concentration. For example, I am writing this piece at a tire replacement center. The individual working the counter is doing a great job of answering the phone, filling out orders and taking payments from customers. In this environment, an employee can multitask and continue to meet or exceed the expectations of his  position.

However, in the spreadsheet example, every single time your brain gets distracted you need to start over. As a result, a one-hour project can take all afternoon if you respond to 20-30 e-mails during the work.

Consider another example of e-mail hurting productivity—meetings. How many times have you sat in an extremely important meeting while many of the other participants spent half the meeting checking their phones and responding to messages?

Are these individuals able to really concentrate and pay attention while they are communicating with someone else? The obvious answer is NO!

Unfortunately, these people spend the entire meeting irritated by the fact that they have to sit in a meeting, completely focused on all the work they are going to get done as soon as it is over. They then run back to their offices and begin to send out a bunch of e-mails to address issues that they should have discussed in the meeting. It’s insanity!

As much as these distractions affect productivity, interruptions are not the most damaging result of e-mail communication. The worst effect of e-mail misuse comes when we utilize this tool to communicate an uncomfortable conversation.

Most of us have been on both sides of a conversation that involved a bunch of negative emotions. For some reason, we think that the more upset we are with someone else, the more sense it makes to vent our frustrations over e-mail. In addition, how many times have you spent an hour crafting some ridiculous e-mail because you were too afraid to have a 10-minute uncomfortable conversation?

These exchanges almost always leave both parties (sender and receiver) unhappy with the end result. In addition, because those involved have avoided the important conversation that needed to take place, this e-mail interaction has eroded the relationship. I have seen whole companies collapse because they relied on e-mail for the most delicate conversations.

Let me close by saying that e-mail can be a very effective tool in your business if you follow these three simple rules.

Rule 1: Keep your e-mail closed when you are working on a project or on the telephone. Even better, block time in your day to send and respond to e-mail. Believe it or not, your heart will continue to beat if you click the red “X” in the upper right hand corner of Outlook.

Rule 2: Keep your in-box clean (under 25 e-mail messages). When you get an e-mail you should respond, delete or file into a folder. In a rare occasion, you will leave it to be dealt with later. At the end of every day, set aside some time to deal with these and get your in-box down to a manageable number.

Rule 3: Never, under any circumstance, use e-mail to communicate a difficult message that you should deliver in person. The negative effects will be much worse than even the most uncomfortable conversation.

If you like this article, please sign up for my weekly e-newsletter, Monday Inspiration, by visiting www.goreachmore.com. I couldn’t resist ending by advising that you subscribe to another e-mail.


McClanahan is a business coach and inspirational speaker with ReachMore Strategies. He can be reached at 576-8492 or cjm@goreachmore.com.


  • Appropriate Email Usage
    Some of the best information I've gained in recent years has come from thoughts and tips shared by Robby Slaughter, of locally based Slaughter Development. His productivity series and other business models are very helpful if applied to your workday.
  • Other Helpful Email Management Tips
    Great insights. Email is used ineffectively too often. I always clarify when employees say they "talked" to someone about something when really they emailed the person. Since I work for an email company, I am especially sensitive to its benefits, and downsides ... and I'm constantly overloaded with email.

    I've found these tips to be helpful:
    1. View the subject line as a purpose statement and make it useful for later keyword searching. What does the message need to accomplish? If you don't know, don't write it. (i.e. "Edits Due Tues. 4 p.m. for XX Client RFP" ... instead of "XX Client Proposal")
    2. Don't mix purposes. It's hard for recipients to archive.
    3. Change the subject line (or start a new string) if the reply content has changed directions.
    4. If CYA is needed, call to discuss the situation, then summarize in a brief follow-up email to document.
    5. Only archive your own to/from messages. If you are CC'd, the burden is on the sender or person in the to line.
    6. The more you send, the more you receive.
    7. Ask for a one-page bulleted summary every Friday from employees of all the "FYI" and misc ideas they would otherwise have sent as separate, non-urgent emails. Hold them accountable to the system.
    8. Manage expectations. If you always reply within 30 mins, you'll be expected to do so forever more. Stop.

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