Category Archives: Email Research

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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Microsoft’s Envisioning team in the Office division puts out a video every few years (20082009, 2011) highlighting ideas and concepts they feel are coming in the next 10 years or so. Besides being extremely high quality and intriguing, these videos also give us a glimpse into what different individuals inside Microsoft are working on, researching, and conceiving. I’ve taken an especially keen interest in their most recent 2011 Productivity Future Vision short because of its ties with communication and email. Watch it before continuing (and perhaps revisit it as you read along so as to keep up):

Pretty cool, huh? There are some fantastic concepts in there (and very cool technology as well). I’ve watched the video many times, and I was even able to get some commentary on it directly from one of the Microsoft employees who helped create the video. Let’s take a closer look at some of the more pertinent and interesting scenes.

Short-form Messages and Integrated Calendaring

Near the beginning of the video, we see businesswoman Ayla reading an email while traveling in the cab to her hotel. You can see the email and the integrated response in the image below (click for full size).

A short message and integrated calendaring with the response.

First thing to note is the length of the original message. It’s short! Far too few messages are that short in real life. The sender, Qin, manages to get in a salutation, a comment about the flight, and a request in five lines, leaving enough space for a big, beautiful picture of him. We then see Ayla dictate a response that indicates she will get to the review “first thing tomorrow.” The device recognizes that a temporal event has just been mentioned and determines what the temporal event was (“Review Proposal”), checks her calendar, and inserts it, asking Ayla for confirmation.

What is wonderful about this proposed interaction is that it allows Ayla to use a “fire and forget” strategy because the task has been moved from her inbox straight to her calendar. Ayla does not need to flag the message, mark it as unread (as many do), or hope that she sees it tomorrow morning to remember to actually perform the review. Probably one of the most common strategies of coping with numerous emails and tasks is to leave the message in the inbox (Whittaker, 2005), often marking it as unread “so it will be visually distinctive and continue to catch [the user's] attention” (Wattenberg, Rohall, Gruen, & Kerr, 2005). However, Whittaker notes that “visual reminding is compromised when there are too many inbox messages” because “older outstanding items are overlooked when processing new incoming messages” (2005). And for busy executives receiving tens or hundres of messages a day, this can happen quickly.

Furthermore, when Ayla has the device actually create the calendar appointment automatically, it saves her from having to transpose the information from her email to her calendar, which is a step that prevents many people from actually completing a task (Blandford & Green, 2001). Later in the video we see Ayla attend to the task the next morning, and the review file is automatically associated with the appointment so Ayla doesn’t have to dig around in her emails or on a server to retrieve the file. This again is a huge step in reducing overload because it does not require Ayla to transpose any information or documents to the task.

Some email clients do currently attempt to pick out metadata like this from emails (Mail.app will look for dates and times; Outlook will too), but no client does it as effectively as is shown in the video, nor does any client do it from your reply, only from the original message, to my knowledge. This is certainly a technique worth implementing for those creating email clients.

5 Minute Focus

5 Minute Focus screen on Qin's device

One of the concepts reiterated several times throughout the video is that of a device automatically displaying tasks for a user to complete based on the situation. David Jones, the Microsoft program manager who was kind enough to give me a few thoughts on the video, said the following:

“The bigger idea we tried to get across is that we can surface the right emails for you to look at based on your current context – Ayla in the car, Qin with 5 minutes to spare in the subway, and Ayla in the Hotel room based on the fact that Shannon was worried.”

Qin replying via an integrated app to a quick questionQin might not have been able to write an employee review while waiting for the subway, but he certainly could respond to a quick one-line question. Somehow the device is aware of two things: the current context (the fact that Qin is waiting for a specific subway train), and the estimated time required to complete a request in his voicemail inbox (automatically transcribed, something that I think the latest version of Exchange Server will do for you, as will Google Voice). As a side note, I also like the nice touch of giving the option of grabbing something at the café as well, a little geolocation magic!

This also brings up the concept of an integrated mini-app that is displayed instead of a typical reply field. No written response or call is required by Qin because he approves the order on the spot from within the original message. Who remembers Google Wave? This type of ability was built in, where you could conduct polls, attendance, etc., in-message. That wasn’t the first time this idea had been proposed, however. Duchenaut and Watts found that the first time this was suggested was in 1976 by Anderson and Gillogly with “computational mail,” where when “the message is opened, the program is executed” (2005). Now obviously we would have to be careful to avoid the email viruses of yesteryear, and this would mostly likely be a very custom development job inside of each company, but it would certainly also be a leap forward in usability.

Conversations from Anywhere

Another powerful idea developed in the Productivity Vision film is that content, no matter what or where, is all linked, and people can have a conversation about any piece of content, augmented by context. At the end of the video we are introduced to Shannon, Ayla’s daughter. Shannon is trying to find a recipe to make for school, and writes and then video calls her mother.

Shannon initiating a video call from within her message

I was wondering just how that video call was started. Here is how David elucidates this scene:

“Shannon initiated the call. She wrote a handwritten note, and then initiated a call from “within” it. The idea here is that you can have a conversation from within any piece of content. This is similar to how Ayla leaves Jeff a comment in the presentation she is working on in the Office scene. And how Jeff leaves Qin a comment in the document that we see in 5 minute mode in the Subway scene. Unfortunately we don’t show Ayla actually answering the call—we were re-using footage and didn’t have a shot of her pressing anything on the phone. It goes by so fast that  no one notices though.”

So Shannon started by writing a note, but then used that note to start a video call. How many times have you been writing a reply to a colleague, or been in the middle of composing a report you are both working on, and realized that just wanted to talk to them? Or how often have you been reviewing some work done by a co-worker and thought of leaving a comment, but didn’t want to compose a whole new email or add the comment in-file and then resend it?

Similarly, we see other examples of a related concept elsewhere in the video. For example, when Jeff is writing the report, two sets of words are underlined for him, with the computer offering to insert supplemental information about those objects into the report for him. Arrows have been added to show what the computer offered in the video.

The computer automatically offering to insert supplemental content.

I’m not so sure that I would find this type of feature handy very often, but the idea that related information should be surfaced is extremely powerful, and also very pertinent to information overload. It is time intensive to open attachments or find previously saved data when conducting business over email, and according to the most current research, the biggest contributor to email overload are messages/tasks that require lots of interdependent, qualitatively complex messages (Bellotti, Ducheneaut, & Howard, 2005). Stopping mid-sentence during composition to go and find an Excel document that you know has a figure in it related to what you are writing incurs a large task-switching cost. If the computer can automatically determine and retrieve relevant information, documents, and links, then this task-switching cost can be avoided and the complexity of those messages greatly reduced. Likewise, pulling people’s schedules and locations when discussing them in an email would also be very helpful, avoiding an extra trip to the often-separate calendar. Both Bellotti et al. and researchers at IBM (Kerr & Wilcox, 2004) have experimented with making related information in email clients “first-class citizens,” with very positive results. Implementing such a feature would obviously require very complex natural language processing and metadata handling capabilities, but it would be a huge boon to reducing complex and overloading emails.

Note the pink bar indicating Shannon's emotionAs a bonus, David also pointed out something that he said most people miss: the fact that Shannon was worried about finding a recipe, and therefore gets a pink bar above her as an indication to her mother of her emotion. “Tried to work in some emotional reco here,” said David. This is quite advanced, but makes a lot of sense. How would it apply in the business world? We are often unaware of the current workload of the people we are sending messages to, and are often unaware of how much work we have delegated them in the past. Sending emails is “cheap,” monetarily of course but also cognitively, and we get in the trap of sending too many to be useful. Could some sort of indicator be included marking how “overloaded” the individual is (this is measurable, in fact; see Hogan & Fisher, 2006; or Jonathan Spira of Basex), or how much we have delegated to them in the past? Indicators such as these may help senders to temper or change the workload they are sending out via email.

Conclusion

Whew, there’s a ton here and I haven’t even covered the half of it! Let’s review the major ideas and concepts that spring from this short that would be useful in the fight against email and information overload.

  • Shorter, more complete messages: Sounds simple, but it would be a big help for many people to retrain ourselves to write more clearly and succinctly (especially me; as you can tell, brevity is not my forté). Could we write email client plugins that evaluate writing style and give us helpful hints?
  • Automatic information transposition and task creation: Huge because it removes several steps that many people simply don’t take the time for (transposing information) and removes the burden of task management from your inbox, organizing it more effectively elsewhere.
  • Context-aware task surfacing: Do you have five minutes to spare? Your email client should give you tasks that it knows you can complete in that time frame so that you don’t have to hunt and peck for them.
  • Integrated mini-apps: Similar to Google Wave widgets, business-related application components that allow non-text actions to be taken from emails.
  • Conversations from and in any content: Any and all content is up for use as a conversation starter, and doing so allows the conversation to always be context aware.
  • Context-aware data surfacing: By pulling up relevant documents or information as you are working, the computer can greatly reduce task-switching costs associated with searching for needed data. This would be an enormous boon to productivity.
  • Emotional/historical indicators: Is someone overloaded because you’ve unconsciously sent them too many tasks recently? Indicators could help us track how someone else is doing, and we can adjust our behavior as senders based on that.

A big thanks to David Jones for taking the time to respond to my questions about the video and for the information he provided. I’m hoping that we can take the concepts presented here and turn them into reality and see the benefits we can reap from it.

Sources

Bellotti, V., Ducheneaut, N., & Howard, M. (2005). Quality versus quantity: E-mail-centric task management and its relation with overload. Human-Computer Interaction, 20, 89-138. Retrieved from http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1466574

Blandford, A., & Green, T. (2001). Group and individual time management tools: What you get is not what you need. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 5, 213–230.

Ducheneaut, N., & Watts, L. A. (2005). In search of coherence: a review of e-mail research. Human-Computer Interaction, 20, 11-48. Retrieved from http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1466572

Hogan, B., & Fisher, D. (2006). A scale for measuring email overload. Microsoft Research, 7-9. Retrieved from http://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&btnG=Search&q=intitle:A+Scale+for+Measuring+Email+Overload#0

Kerr, B., & Wilcox, E. (2004). Designing remail. Extended abstracts of the 2004 conference on Human factors and computing systems – CHI  ’04 (Vol. 23127, p. 837). New York, New York, USA: ACM Press. doi:10.1145/985921.985944

Wattenberg, M., Rohall, S. L., Gruen, D., & Kerr, B. (2005). E-mail research: targeting the enterprise. Human-Computer Interaction, 20(1), 139–162. L. Erlbaum Associates Inc. Retrieved from http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1466575

Whittaker, S., Bellotti, V., & Moody, P. (2005). Introduction to This Special Issue on Revisiting and Reinventing E-Mail. Human-Computer Interaction, 20(1), 1-9. doi:10.1207/s15327051hci2001&2_1

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Thanks to the years of research that have already gone into email overload, there have been many proposed and experimented solutions that attack the problem in one way or another, as well as many companies springing up today. I wanted to try and give a brief treatment of what has already been covered so that we know where to turn our efforts in the future.


Past Research

Determining Message Value, Priority, and Criticality

Eric Horvitz has led the way in much of the research regarding decision-making as it relates to email. One of the most intriguing solutions proposed and tested by Horvitz and his fellow Microsoft researchers was the Priorities system they developed to determine the criticality of a message upon receipt using Bayesian networks, and to take certain actions based on that determination. Their research not only covers an important factor in determining the overall value of a message, but also helps to reduce the costs related to over-alerting an individual with email updates and the task-switching costs that are incurred. Likewise, they also discussed the costs associated with delaying notification of a message.

The Priorities system they designed was implemented for real-world testing at Microsoft. I am not sure what has been done with the system or the work since then, but it was stated in the article that it seemed to be a success in their testing.

See: Horvitz, E., Jacobs, A., & Hovel, D. (1999). Attention-sensitive alerting. Proceedings of UAI  ’99, Conference on Uncertainty and Artificial Intelligence (Vol. 98025). Stockholm, Sweden. Retrieved from http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2073831

Even earlier work was done in 1993 by Douglas Terry, a researcher at Xerox PARC, that used hand-crafted “appraisers” to determine the priority of a message. The user would create different appraisers (essentially rules) that stated, for example, to give a message a score of 95/100 if it was sent by the user’s boss, or a 15 if it seemed to be a mass message from HR. The email client would then sort by binned ranges of priorities. This is certainly an early and rather static treatment of priorities, but could potentially be expanded now using machine learning and more advanced natural language processing to be more scalable and powerful.

See: Terry, D. B. (1993). A Tour Through Tapestry. COCS  ’93 Proceedings of the conference on Organizational computing systems (pp. 21-30). ACM. Retrieved from http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=168558

Different Paradigms and UI Presentations

One of the more complete treatments of a new messaging paradigm was the TaskMaster system created by Bellotti, Ducheneaut, and Howard. The TaskMaster system was “intended to break away from the messaging-system metaphor (featuring inbox, outbox, and drafts folders) and to present a strongly-focused task-centric view of e-mail.” As such, emails are viewed more as tasks, and the client relied heavily on threading to organize the tasks (they gave this a new name: “thrasks”). They also elevated document attachments and links to be “first-class citizens,” previewed within the same window as the message itself. See the screenshot below for an explanation of the UI.

Screenshot of the TaskMaster UI

This new email client was tested by real users, and the reaction was overall quite positive. However, they found that most users didn’t stay with the system long term because the client was not as full-featured as the client the users were already familiar with (Microsoft Outlook), and they needed the additional functionality. Using both at the same time didn’t make sense.

This brings up a very important point that is evident over and over again when new software solutions are tested: users often like the new solution, but cannot stick with it long term because they need the more full feature set of existing clients. A lesson we can learn from this is that if you are going to present a new software solution, it either has to be built into existing clients or act as a full blown replacement for the clients with feature parity.

See: Bellotti, V., Ducheneaut, N., & Howard, M. (2005). Quality versus quantity: E-mail-centric task management and its relation with overload. Human-Computer Interaction, 20, 89-138. Retrieved from http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1466574

Another radical departure from the typical listed inbox was the TeleNotes system designed by Whittaker and colleagues. It took an approach more akin to the physical world, allowing emails, tasks, and documents to be scattered around a desktop in a visual way, similar to how employees will organize different piles of papers and to-dos on their desks. This appealed to users, and for large projects and tasks it was very useful. However, users didn’t want to use the TeleNotes system for all of their emails because many of the smaller, one-off emails didn’t fit well into the paradigm. Also, we again, saw the issue with users abandoning the new system because the prototype wasn’t fully featured, and the reliance on the old client.

See: Whittaker, S. (2005). Supporting collaborative task management in e-mail. Human-Computer Interaction, 20(1), 49–88. L. Erlbaum Associates Inc. Retrieved from http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1466573

Organization: Automated and User-Directed

One thing we learn from extensive research is that filing into folders, even though a relatively common practice, is a rather unsuccessful technique for reducing email overload. We could potentially automate this, but that doesn’t help much either. Steve Whittaker summarized this rather well in his 2005 paper:

“Filing is a major problem for e-mail users: Categorization is a cognitively difficult task (Lansdale, 1988; Malone, 1983; Whittaker & Sidner, 1996), made yet more difficult because folder categories change as the user’s work focus shifts (Kidd, 1994; Whittaker & Hirschberg, 2001; Whittaker & Sidner, 1996).”

“Several agent-based systems have been designed to provide assisted filing (Boone, 1998; Cohen, 1996; Mock, 2001; Segal & Kephart, 1999; Takkinnen & Shahmehri, 1998). These systems use machine learning techniques to automatically elicit the defining characteristics of existing folders, based on message header properties and content. … More seriously, assisted filing does not get to the heart of the problem. Assisted filing classifies inbox messages into existing folder categories, whereas a major user filing problem is with defining new folders (Whittaker & Sidner, 1996).”

Even if the categorization is correct 85% of the time as was found by some of the implementations, there are two problems: first, users don’t trust an automated system, and second, filing is not a very good practice to begin with because it is cognitively demanding, and so doesn’t lessen our email overload.

See: Whittaker, S. (2005). Supporting collaborative task management in e-mail. Human-Computer Interaction, 20(1), 49–88. L. Erlbaum Associates Inc. Retrieved from http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1466573

It is very important to note that, as email volume increases, having a good search function in an email client is essential. I would almost propose that our email inboxes are becoming “mini-Internets” in a sense, where we get on and search for bits of data that we know is hidden away somewhere in those troves of email, much as we open our browsers and use search engines to query the entire Web. While examining organization in inboxes, Fisher, Brush, Gleave, and Smith discussed the importance of search to many users with high volumes of email.

See: Fisher, D., Brush, A., Gleave, E., & Smith, M. A. (2006). Revisiting Whittaker & Sidner’s “Email Overload” ten years later. CSCW  ’06 Computer Supported Cooperative Work (pp. 309-312). Banff, Alberta, Canada. Retrieved from http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1180922

Classifying broad email types is something that is becoming rather feasible thanks to powerful algorithms and data mining techniques. A more recent project developed a system to automatically classify customer complaint emails from other general emails, with rather impressive results. The setting for the research was a call center that handled customer emails, and so in this case, triaging the emails could prove to save time and money.

See: Coussement, K., & Vandenpoel, D. (2008). Improving customer complaint management by automatic email classification using linguistic style features as predictors. Decision Support Systems, 44(4), 870-882. doi:10.1016/j.dss.2007.10.010


Current Solutions and Companies

AwayFind

AwayFindAttempting to help with attention management instead of inbox management, AwayFind is trying to target the top 2-3% of messages that you need to know about immediately, and will notify you through other means of communication (text, phone call, etc.) of the arrival of such messages. It appears to do this through a combination of examining most-contacted recipients and by allowing users to specify certain rules to trigger the alerts. Their tagline is “stop checking your email. The founder and CEO of the company, Jared Goralnick, is also the EVP of the Information Overload Resource Group, a collection of practitioners and academics attempting to solve the problem of information overload, and so you can bet the company is probably on the right track.

OrchestratorMail

OrchestratorMailThis solution is particularly interesting to me as I think it goes after a very specific but very beneficial pain point—establishing a common ontology for email communications and attaching deadlines and reminders to existing conversations. OrchestratorMail builds on top of existing email clients, so it doesn’t require users to adopt entirely new software, and it doesn’t try to automate something that doesn’t need to be done, such as filing. According to the company, most email communications can be broken down into questions, discussions, notes, information, requests, and proposals. Users mark emails as such, and then when replying, instead of communicating their response only through the text reply, the user will click a button (like “approved” or “more information”) to indicate how the conversation has gone. Deadlines and reminders can also be attached to conversations. All of this extra information helps to speed up the conversation process, and remove a lot of the manual work involved. I think this particular application, while small in focus, has a lot of potential.

Asana

AsanaTo understand Asana, you can think Basecamp with super-tight email integration (especially with Gmail/Google Apps). It plays off the idea that email inboxes have really morphed into task management centers (which is true, and can be backed up by large amounts of research). Emails can be funneled through the app, and when everyone in an organization is on the system, they can assign tasks to each other, keep up to date, etc.

EmailTray

EmailTrayThis company, EmailTray (formerly SenderOk) has created a new email client with a focus on intelligently ranking emails based on contact patterns, as well as combining information from social networks to enrich your contact’s details. I haven’t tried it, but hopefully the new client overcomes the problems found earlier in the research section about users abandoning new software because it was feature rich enough.


There are of course many other solutions and proposals, both in research and in industry, that aim to help ease the email overload burden, but these are few of the large ideas that I have come across. Based on what I have seen so far, I am inclined to say that the big solutions to email overload lie with behavioral changes and improvements, rather than with technological advances. However, technology is the perfect tool to reinforce good behavior. This is all a topic within itself however, so more will be forthcoming on that.

Please feel free to mention other ideas and companies that you may know of as well that are tackling this immense issue from the technology side. We need all the help we can get!

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Are you a man of a million folders, or a woman of pristine cleanliness? Have you never created a folder in your inbox in your life, or do you go on a mad filing spree every so often? Chances are you can answer yes to at least one of those descriptions. In general, people can be separated into four broad email usage categories, depending on their behavior.

Knowing which type you most closely represent can help you determine how to modify your behavior to lessen the overload you feel from email. The four types of email management strategies are:

Wondering what type you are? Use this simple flowchart to determine your email management strategy, and read on below.

Email Management Strategy Determiner

No Filers

The strategy employed by these people is pretty simple: don’t create folders, don’t file anything, and don’t delete anything. Everything goes into one giant inbox, and no effort is spent trying to sort amongst different projects or assignments. A full third of all email users are no filers.

Advantages

In fact, no filers may have one of the better strategies. As will be briefly explained later, filing takes an often inordinate amount of effort, and often contributes to the lost feeling that many emailers experience when wading through their email. No filers on the other hand know exactly where the message they are looking for is: it’s in their one massive inbox. Recall of a message only requires knowing either something unique that was said in the message to search with, or a cognitive recall of the surrounding email context (date/time, other chronologically related messages).

Disadvantages

The strength that no filers hold in only having one folder is also their downfall—having thousands of messages in just one folder represents a near stream-of-conscious when it comes to their communication. Efficient recall of messages is entirely dependent on the strong searching capabilities of the email client and of the user, or the recency of the message. No filers will also struggle when the volume of messages they receive in a day surpasses their ability to effectively deal with them all. Having collaborative discussions will often kill anyone’s capacity to manage a no-filed inbox.

Frequent Filers

Rules, autofiles, and the land of folders, every email has a place and a place for every email. Does this describe you? Then you might be a frequent filer. As you might expect, frequent filers make a habit out of using their inbox as a triage, sending off emails to particular project folders, action folders, or archive folders. Approximately 21% of people fall into the frequent filer category.

Advantages

If constructed correctly and with appropriate foresight, a good folder organization structure can greatly enhance message recall and lower the perceived overload that comes from email. Separating messages into similar groupings allows for better collaborative communication to take place, and requires less searching than other techniques.

Disadvantages

Actually creating a good folder structure ahead of time is quite difficult. As was found by several researchers and confirmed by Nicolas Duchenaut and Leon Watts, “successful filing is highly dependent on being able to imagine future retrieval requirements, and that it requires considerable effort.” So unless you can know in advance exactly what folders are going to be useful and appropriate to create, users often find as they go along that some folders end up abandoned (“failed folders” as they have been labeled in research) or some become massive mega-folders that contain too many emails to be useful.

Spring Cleaners

Not all of us have extensive sorting rules defined or are OCD enough to file each message as it arrives, but we do value cleanliness and order. For these people, a spring cleaning of the inbox to sort out messages from time to time is a popular strategy. In fact, the majority of email users (41%) fall into this group.

Advantages

Spring cleaning your inbox does not require as much advanced setup as a frequent filer may invest in, and provides for slightly more flexibility when cleaning time comes. These people may also use their inboxes as reminders of what they need to do, and file tasks away when they have been completed. This strategy is probably most popular because it is rewarding to the user to maintain a folder structure, but does not require every day attention.

Disadvantages

Guess what? Spring cleaners share many of the same disadvantages as frequent filers do, namely that folder structures are very difficult to create ahead of actual usage, and require a lot of cognitive effort to maintain. Those who employ this strategy must also take time out of their schedules to perform the organizing when they choose to do so, which essentially becomes lost productivity.

Folderless Cleaners

I myself would fit most comfortably into this category. The concepts of “inbox zero” and other philosophies of small inboxes would as well. Folderless cleaners are defined as those people who like to maintain very small inboxes, and either delete or archive away (as in Gmail’s case for example) messages that are no longer relevant. In this manner, an inbox becomes less of a historical record and more of a task-management center. The idea of an inbox as a task management tool is an entirely separate and large concept, but we’ll leave it at that for now.

Advantages

Those with few messages in their inbox would generally feel better about the amount of stress coming from email overload. Recall is simplified for recent messages as they are usually directly visible in the inbox, or the user may depend heavily on the searching features of the client.

Disadvantages

Unfortunately, once the volume picks up or collaborative conversations begin, it can become difficult to maintain a small inbox, and the folderless cleaner may feel the pressure from not maintaining their typical strategy. Also, when a message that represents a task or a to-do is out of the inbox, recall for that message is much more difficult.

Sources

The majority of the information contained in this post comes from an article by Fisher, Brush, Gleave, and Smith. Supplemental info also came from Ducheneaut and Watts.

Fisher, D., Brush, A., Gleave, E., & Smith, M. A. (2006). Revisiting Whittaker & Sidner’s “Email Overload” ten years later. CSCW  ’06 Computer Supported Cooperative Work (pp. 309-312). Banff, Alberta, Canada. Retrieved from http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1180922

Ducheneaut, N., & Watts, L. A. (2005). In search of coherence: a review of e-mail research. Human-Computer Interaction, 20, 11-48. Retrieved from http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1466572

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As part of my larger project to investigate the issue of information and email overload, I have been conducting a rather large literature review of current research that has been done on it. While doing so, I’ve gathered several very interesting quotes and figures about the costs of information overload, and the negative effects it has on us.

Here are some of the highlights, or lowlights, depending on how you look at it (emphasis added):

“In fact, research conducted…shows that the problem cost the U.S. economy around $997 billion in 2010.”
- Jonathan Spira, 2011. Information Overload: None Are Immune. Information Management, 21(5), 32.

“Still, a survey of 2,300 Intel employees revealed that people judge nearly one-third of the messages they receive to be unnecessary. Given that those same employees spend about two hours a day processing e-mail (employees surveyed received an average of 350 messages a week, executives up to 300 a day), a serious amount of time is clearly being wasted.”
“But one calculation by Nathan Zeldes and two other researchers put Intel’s annual cost of reduced efficiency, in the form of time lost to handling unnecessary e-mail and recovering from information interruptions, at nearly $1 billion.”
“A study by Microsoſt researchers tracking the e-mail habits of coworkers found that once their work had been interrupted by an e-mail notifi cation, people took, on average, 24 minutes to return to the suspended task.”
- Paul Hemp. (2009). Death by information overload. Harvard Business Review, 87(9), 83–89. Harvard Business School Publication Corp.

“Stressed IT professionals are linked to issues of organizational commitment, turnover intentions, and work exhaustion.”
“Two recent studies have emphasized the importance of technostress by studying the impacts of technostress. These studies have found that individuals experiencing technostress have lower productivity and job satisfaction, and decreased commitment to the organization.”
- Ayyagari, R., Grover, V., & Purvis, R. (2011). Technostress: Technological Antecedents and Implications. MIS Quarterly, 35(4), 831-858.

So let’s review. Information overload costs the US economy nearly an estimated $1 trillion dollars, and one company alone $1 billion dollars. As Mr. Spira points out, if a company were to recognize that cost for what it is and write it off their books, it is such a substantial amount that it would require disclosure to the SEC and shareholders. Email overload results in a massive amount of wasted time, and it can take the average worker up to twenty-four minutes to return to full productivity after answering emails. Finally, information overload leads to “technostress”, which can cause workers to have decreased job satisfaction, lower productivity, and higher turnover. Ouch!

This is a material problem that we are facing today. For comparison, it is estimated that spam caused a $20 billion drag on the US economy in 2010— pittance compared to the cost estimated of IO. Companies have spent fortunes coming up with ways to combat spam. Now an incentive exists to make a similar investment battling the even more serious problem of information and email overload.

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