How We Waste Time on Email

The inbox, used appropriately, can be one of the most successful productivity tools of all time.  For most of us, however, it ends up being a huge time sink.

That was one of the findings of Victoria Bellotti of Xerox Parc, who combines backgrounds in psychology and human-computer interaction to study how people are actually using (and misusing) the digital technologies that are supposed to make their lives easier. Bellotti, who spoke at last week’s Inbox Love conference in Silicon Valley, says that in the case of email, certain practices are particularly unproductive.

“We found there were a number of deadly pains of email, but probably the biggest one was trying to keep track of complex interdependent tasks where you have to contact other people and involve them in a network of obligations,” she says. In workplace parlance, this would be known as the “email thread” – in which a co-worker CC’s six other people about their latest project, asks for everyone’s two cents, and thus spawns an inbox-clogging cascade of replies and new requests for information.

One of the reasons such “networks of obligations” are so taxing, Bellotti says, is that crucial information may be in any one of the replies, and it’s difficult for the recipient to remember just where. Thus, copious amounts of time are spent scrolling through the thread looking for that critical project deadline or contact number. She estimates that about 20% of the time in email “is spent either organizing stuff of trying to find stuff.”

The second way people waste time should come as no surprise: Multitasking. Bellotti says she’s videotaped and timed people switching between tasks, and found sometimes it’s little more than 20 seconds that a subject stays focused on one thing.

“It seems like there are not many people who are very good at starting and finishing,” she says. But though starts-and-stops tend to make completing a task take longer, it can be a sensible approach. With so much data flooding in simultaneously, across cell phones, browsers, inboxes and Twitter accounts, people have to appraise the importance of each incoming message. It’s better to weed out the most important messages and reply promptly, which may require scanning and shunting off lesser ones for later.

Bellotti says different cognitive styles also have a huge impact on how people deal with their email. For instance, someone with a very good memory may spend less time organizing messages in folders because they will be able to come up with a keyword to search for that particular email. Someone with lesser recall, on the other hand, may rely more on subfolders.

Overall, Bellotti says, startups and enterprises could do a lot to improve the email experience. Particularly useful would be tools to make it easier to determine which bits of information are important, and once having determined that, to be able to find them.

“I would love to see email turned into a knowledge worker’s dashboard,” she says. “It should be integrated with SMS and voicemail and social networking… and your system should have the capability to recommend these things that might be a priority.”