Recovering from an e-mail interruption

The October issue of Real Simple magazine quotes a Microsoft and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign study that claims it takes 17 minutes “for a worker interrupted by e-mail to get back to what she was doing.”

If this statistic is true, and I know from experience that there is a refractory time after any distraction, it is strong evidence against leaving the notification alert active on your e-mail program. Instead, you should schedule time in your day to check your e-mail. Based on the type of office environment you work in, you might need to check your e-mail at the top of every hour. However, most people can get by only checking their e-mail two to four times during the work day.

I also recommend checking e-mail during the times when you are usually distracted during the day. Whether this is when others tend to interrupt you or when your mind typically wanders on its own, it’s best not to try to do high-functioning activities when you plan to work through your e-mail inbox. For me, this is right after lunch when I find it difficult to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time. I check e-mail, return phone calls, and do a little bit of filing.

Try turning off the notification alert on your e-mail system and only checking e-mail on a schedule and see if it improves your productivity. If the interruption refractory period really is 17 minutes, you should immediately notice significant gains in your focus.

23 Comments for “Recovering from an e-mail interruption”

  1. posted by sg on

    Oh, if I could only check my work e-mail just four times a day! I do a lot of editing on materials with time-sensitive deadlines, and some of my clients (and co-workers!) will howl if they don’t hear back from me within 15 or 20 minutes after they send me an e-mail. So I leave my e-mail on and let the interruptions happen. I’m sure I could be a lot more productive if I could keep my e-mail off for an hour at a stretch, but in my office that would be frowned upon.

  2. posted by Kelly on

    I echo that first comment. I would love to turn off my e-mail alerts AND my company just added instant messaging. And I would love for the howl to come at 15 or 20 minutes … my boss sent an IM Tuesday that I did not see right away and the howl came at 8 minutes. So not only can I not turn off the alerts, I have to turn up the volume.
    Not only that, but many people in my office communicate important and time-sensitive information (information that should be communicated in person or over the phone) over e-mail. If I do not see it and modify the situation as needed, I get in big trouble.

  3. posted by Gina on

    Same here — part of my job responsibility is to respond immediately to problems communicated by email. I have to monitor constantly.

    However, it’s a good reminder not to get too hung up on personal email/message boards, etc. Schedule a time for those and stick to it, if you’re endlessly checking stuff you don’t need to.

  4. posted by Anne on

    @sg and Kelly
    Perhaps that statistic quoted in the article (that it takes 17 minutes to recover from an email interruption) would be a good way to start a discussion with your bosses about email policies and the high volume of distractions in the workplace. @Kelly especially, if your coworkers are communicating time-sensitive, urgent information over email that SHOULD be communicated over the phone, they should get in trouble, not you.

    Too many people suffer through distractions and interruptions because they think they can’t do anything about it, but reasonable bosses should be willing to listen to such concerns. Newer technology (IM/email) isn’t necessarily superior to the old (phone/plain old face-to-face).

  5. posted by Joshua Banker on

    I have been lately trying to become more organized and “unclutter” my day. Since reading this posting I have put my phone on “do not disturb” and turned off my email notification. It may not take me 17 minutes to recover but it does take me awhile. Ironically I was just talking about this with my boss related to my phone this morning and got permission during my big projects to turn off my phone.

    Thanks. Since over the last week I have become a frequent reader I am going to try and reply more often.

  6. posted by Anita on

    Did the study take into account which of the emails were emergencies to be dealt with immediately, and which were pure distractions? It it only takes you 17 minutes (from the time to get the message) to deal with an urgent matter before you get back to regular (i.e. less urgent) work, I’d call that very efficient and productive.

    I find a lot of the email-related posts on here tend to consider email as a distraction from work rather than an essential tool for transmitting time-sensitive information, which is the reality in every office I’ve worked in. Rather than advising people to get away from email (which would be downright counterproductive in my workplace and, it seems, also in the offices of many of the commenters here), wouldn’t it be more useful to focus on how to deal with email expeditiously so as to reduce the time spent on unessential messages, while responding efficiently to urgencies?

  7. posted by infmom on

    Email doesn’t interrupt me, but my husband does. Every so often I have to throw a fit to make him aware of it.

  8. posted by Godiva on

    I’m working for an international company which is second largest in it’s field world wide. I am responsible for two teams who deal with issues in Germany and Austria and I did turn of my e-mail notifications 1 year ago.

    Since then I have never received any complaints from my boss, other superiors or colleagues. If they want something urgent they have to pick up the phone or show up personally. It works great for me and I’m much more productive AND relaxed. I also advised all of my team members to do the same.

    Just because e-mails are send cross border in mere seconds to minutes it’s (and that’s of course only my personal opinion) not an emergency tool. There are several studies of how bad e-mails are for your daily work. E.g. Volvo introduced a maximum number of mail every employee is allowed to send years ago with lot’s of success!

  9. posted by David Turnbull on

    Email is my weakness. Although I only get a couple per day I’m still always checking my inbox. If Safari had an add on like LeechBlock I’d be fine. Shame that it doesn’t.

  10. posted by Michele Connolly, Get Organized Wizard on

    I find the 2 steps to avoiding email distraction are:

    1. Turn off auto-receive
    2. *Process* rather than check email

    The second step creates a mindset when email management becomes a channel for progressing projects and getting work done, rather than a interruption. A tool, not a hindrance. 🙂

    PS I have a post on processing rather than checking here:
    http://www.getorganizedwizard......ail-again/

  11. posted by Mike on

    Echo what Michele said. PROCESS it. Email isn’t as much of a chore if you’re actually dealing with each one as it hits. The overwhelm happens when you check it, queue it, and the workload just builds up.

  12. posted by Beth Frede on

    I try to keep my inbox as empty as possible, but it’s a daily challenge. In a perfect world I’d be organized enough to limit myself to checking and dealing with email just twice a day, at specific designated times…. But I’m not there yet!

  13. posted by Mickey on

    I did this in my previous job, and it took some “training” on my coworkers to understand that I’m not checking email every 15 minutes, so if they need my response immediatly, they should call me or walk over to my desk (small office). I checked email, on average 4 times a day (morning, mid morning break, after lunch, afternoon break) and if I was doing any heavy writing (like grants) I sometimes only checked in the morning/after lunch.

    Did some people get irritated. Yes. But did they get over it. Yes.

    Of course, if your job is to be responsive, it may not work, but I found for me the only barrier was everyone’s expectation that you need to work at THEIR urgency.

  14. posted by allen on

    Well, as some of you know, I was laid off in April, and I can tell you, that the ability to try to effect useful change in your workplace, or even in your OWN work-time, is DIRECTLY tied to your seniority/importance.

    I tried to check my email less often, but most of us small fish aren’t allowed to tell the upper-ups that we’re only going to check our email every few hours! This really seems like information that is only useful to those who have enough power to make others conform to them, not the other way around. I honestly think part of why I lost my job was I kept giving suggestions on ways that the office might run smoother (that’s part of how my brain was working, I was in QA!).

    Also, did the study compare the distraction time of someone coming over to speak with you, compared to a received email?

  15. posted by 24 Productivity Tips From the Best Productivity Blogs on

    […] If this statistic is true, and I know from experience that there is a refractory time after any distraction, it is strong evidence against leaving the notification alert active on your e-mail program. Instead, you should schedule time in your day to check your e-mail. Based on the type of office environment you work in, you might need to check your e-mail at the top of every hour. However, most people can get by only checking their e-mail two to four times during the work day.” Erin Dolan, Unclutterer […]

  16. posted by Cat on

    @Anita – well said. I would love to be able to avoid checking email as it comes in, but unfortunately that’s not really feasible. A post on minimizing recovery time, though, would be great!

  17. posted by Catherine Cantieri, Sorted on

    That statistic is absolutely true, and I can totally feel the frustration from the people whose workplaces insist on instant messaging and the constant, near-immediate refrain of “did you get my email??”.

    I really love Anne’s suggestion, that quoting that statistic might startle some sense into people who expect you to respond to their emails immediately.

    Great discussion in the comments!

  18. posted by 24 Productivity Tips From the Best Productivity Blogs | EClick Business Services on

    […] If this statistic is true, and I know from experience that there is a refractory time after any distraction, it is strong evidence against leaving the notification alert active on your e-mail program. Instead, you should schedule time in your day to check your e-mail. Based on the type of office environment you work in, you might need to check your e-mail at the top of every hour. However, most people can get by only checking their e-mail two to four times during the work day.” — “Unclutterer” […]

  19. posted by itdude on

    I work in information technology, and so I’ve gotten pretty used to email. I actually find personal visits to my desk to be much more distracting. When someone shows up at my door, I *have* to stop what I’m doing, no matter how much I’m concentrating on something. With email, I can decide when to process and respond to it, taking into account our business needs (respond to system alerts right away, customers within 2 hours, etc).

    Here are some things I do that might help others with email distractions:

    – Have your email program filter messages according to subject, sender, or whatever makes sense. Have it move non-essential stuff to another folder or mailbox, for you to look at later. Keep only the “hot” items in your inbox.

    – If you have enough “screen space”, keep your email program open all the time. When a message comes in, a quick glance at the subject or sender line will let you know whether you should stop and address it, or defer it. This may sound counter-intuitive at first, but once you get used to it, it helps.

    – Don’t have your email program ‘minimized” and alerting you all the time. It takes time and mental effort to re-open the mail window and look at the message(s) that just came in. (This is really just restating the point above, from a different perspective).

    – Our group has to respond immediately to alerts regarding our service — they may mean a service outage or serious problem. We decided to rotate the duty of watching for these alerts, for 2 reasons: 1 – someone is definitely going to respond, and 2 – more important to this discussion, the rest of us can get our project work done. Each of us know in advance that “my day” will be less productive project-wise, but it’s only one day a week (there are 5 of us).

    I wonder if we experience email overload because, for the most part, we didn’t grow up with it. We have to adapt to it, and have to change our own norms to deal with it. It seems to me that younger folks, who grew up with this stuff, have a much easier and less stressful time with it. For the past several years, I’ve been reading the comments of college students regarding electronic communication. They say that email is “how I communicate with old people”; they use instant messaging and social media sites to communicate when they’re not in the same room.

  20. posted by John Cupak on

    When I tried to turn off automatic email notification my manager-of-the-time threw a hissy fit. Seems he was in a meeting and wanted me to provide an answer to a question RIGHT NOW! He even went to far as to ping me in my performance review because I wasn’t able to instantly respond. I’d get an IM to the tune of “did you get my email?” And the information needed wasn’t that time-critical anyways – typically took me 1/2 day or more to get the answer he wanted anyways (database queries, excel analysis, etc). Thank goodness I no longer work for him! I now check my email in the morning, noon, and before I leave for home. If it’s important enough, I ask folks to call or IM me.

  21. posted by Surfin’ the Net: 10/3 | Organizing Your Way on

    […] Recovering from an Email Interruption, […]

  22. posted by WWD Weekend Reading List on

    […] Uncluterrer: “Recovering from an e-mail interruption” […]

  23. posted by Alan on

    I leave my e-mail on and let the interruptions happen. I’m sure I could be a lot more productive if I could keep my e-mail off for an hour at a stretch, but in my office that would be frowned upon.

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