The two things you should do NOW to reduce email overload

Have 5 minutes? Want to save yourself 15 to 45 minutes every day? Drowning in email? Follow these two simple tips and you will find yourself more productive and less overloaded in a matter of days.

Turn off email alerts

Desktop alerts are really distracting! Turn them off!You may have heard this tip before, but you probably haven’t done it yet. You must to turn off those little pop-ups that Outlook is giving you every time a new message comes in! The reason is two-fold. First, every time you see one of those windows or hear the new email chime, you are adding to the perceived workload that you have due to emails piling up. Second, if you choose to click on the alert or switch to your email program and proceed to deal with the message, you have just lost several valuable minutes due to task-switching costs once you finish and get back to your primary task. Researchers have found that it takes anywhere from one to sixteen minutes to return to full productivity on the task you were working on before switching to email (Jackson, Dawson & Wilson, 2001; Iqbal & Horvitz, 2007). With some people checking email every time it comes in, they may never even reach peak productivity during the day. Follow the instructions below to turn off these productivity draining notifications. (See also Microsoft’s instructions.)

Video Tutorial

Steps to Turn Off Desktop and Other Outlook 2007 Alerts

  1. In Outlook, go to Tools on the menu bar and choose Options.
  2. Click the Email Options button near the top right of the window that appears.
  3. Click the Advanced Email Options button in the middle of the window that appears.
  4. Uncheck all of the options under When new items arrive in my Inbox.
  5. Click the OK button three times to return to Outlook.

Change the automatic Send/Receive schedule to be less frequent

Studies have shown that there is a huge performance gain when you segment the checking of email into scheduled blocks. Continuously checking email is what most people do, and it is unfortunately the most distracting and detrimental to your main productivity. Changing how frequently you go to and deal with email can make a huge difference.

The ideal number of email blocks appears to be four a day, according to research done by Gupta, Sharda, and Greve (2010). For example, the chart below (click to enlarge) shows how long it took users in a study to complete a primary task (“real” work) when checking their email 1, 2, 4, and 8 times a day, as well as continuously (C1-8 and C respectively). Those who checked email four times a day on specified schedules had the best trade-off between faster responses to colleagues and getting work done quickest.

The time it took to complete a primary task given different email checking schedules.

I would highly suggest scheduling email blocks into your day, and ignoring new mail during the other times, as this data shows. If you want to try it, pick a number of times that would work for you, for example, the 4x/day optimum from the study. If you work a regular 8-5 job and keep your first hour productive by not checking email first thing when you get to work, that would mean receiving and processing email at 9 AM, 11, 1 PM, and 3. Set your Outlook’s Send/Receive schedule to follow a two hour block by following the directions below. (See also Microsoft’s instructions.) (Also note, these instructions don’t work the same if you are an Exchange user. Working on instructions for those, will update shortly.)

Video Tutorial

Steps to change the Send/Receive Schedule in Outlook 2007

  1. Go to Tools on the menu bar, and select Send/Receive, then Send/Receive Settings, then Define Send/Receive Groups…
  2. Change the number in the Schedule an automatic send/receive every number box to be 120 to check email four times a day (120 minutes = 2 hours).
  3. Click Close, and click the Send/Receive button at the next scheduled interval (9, 11, 1, or 3) to get Outlook on schedule.

With this set up, you will only receive new email four times a day, but you will still be able to work through and respond to email sent to you immediately. Hello productivity!

Obviously everyone will need to adapt the tips above to meet their work requirements. If you decide to check email four times a day, you may wish to let your colleagues know of your scheduled times so that they can be aware of your new patterns of productivity. Establishing this social contract is an extremely important part of overcoming email overload. Hope this works for you, and let everyone know of your experiences in the comments.

Sources

Gupta, A., Sharda, R., & Greve, R. a. (2010). You’ve got email! Does it really matter to process emails now or later? Information Systems Frontiers, 13(5), 637-653. doi:10.1007/s10796-010-9242-4

Iqbal, S. T., & Horvitz, E. (2007). Disruption and recovery of computing tasks: field study, analysis, and directions. Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 677–686). ACM. Retrieved from http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1240624.1240730

Jackson, T., Dawson, R., & Wilson, D. (2001). The Cost of Email Interruption. Journal of Systems and Information Technology, 5(1), 81. Retrieved from http://www.emeraldinsight.com/journals.htm?articleid=1718383&show=abstract

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9 thoughts on “The two things you should do NOW to reduce email overload

  1. Hi Josh,

    So, the next “peace” to this is IM. We use Sametime and the pings can be very disruptive. You have to find the time to disconnect and focus. Multi-tasking is key to any technical job these days but the start-stop-start is inefficient as you have documented. It would be interesting to see any good data on IM efficiencies. Obviously, compared to making phone calls or emails for a quick question/answer, IM is awesome. So there are pros and cons there.

    Regards,

    Jim

    Reply
    1. Post author

      Hey Jim!

      IM is definitely another beast that operates along similar lines. Most of the research that I’ve seen so far shows that there are definitely still switching costs associated with IM, though it is less than with email. It all ends up depending on if we’re really using the right medium for the message.

      Reply
  2. Peter

    Hi Josh,

    I came to this through the Lifehacker post and am having some trouble configuring the email settings. I set the frequency that I wanted for the send/receive, but it’s still coming through regularly. Not sure if you can point me to a tutorial somewhere or if you know why it’s doing this. (Tried looking online, but couldn’t find anything that helped).

    Thanks
    Pete

    Reply
    1. Post author

      Pete, were you able to follow the video? Do you have multiple accounts or just one? And is it an Exchange account (often work accounts) or a regular IMAP/POP account, like Gmail?

      Reply
      1. Vishy

        Hi Josh:
        Facing the same problem. Have an exchange account (work) and it’s the only account I have on Outlook. Even after setting to 120m, I get mails a few minutes after they’re sent

        Reply
          1. Post author

            Yup, it’s the Exchange server that’s causing this not to work. I’m looking into a solution there regarding Cached Exchange Mode. I’ll update the post when I’ve got something solid for Exchange users as well.

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  4. Well said! And isn’t it amazing how deep down Microsoft has buried the switches to turn those alerts off? Instead of making them off by default and burying the option to restore them, they made them on out of the box and then you have to go Tools > Options > Email Options >Advanced Email Options > Very advanced options we really don’t want you to find … :-)

    Reply

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