I was reading Jeff Atwood’s post yesterday entitled, Email: The Variable Reinforcement Machine.  In it, he suggests that checking email frequently makes you less productive.  He goes on to say that various types of communication are better forums for some information than sending out emails.  As overuse of email has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time, I found it quite a good post.  However, several people misunderstood his points and are so stuck in the “email is how I live” that they closed their minds to the possibility that he had some good points to make.

His initial point was that checking your email basically interrupts your “flow”.  Flow being defined as the state in which you finally manage to boot your brain up with all relevant and necessary information needed to become productive.  This process usually takes about 15 minutes to achieve and once attained, time seems to fly by and the amount of work you accomplish can be quite large.  However, it’s easy to interrupt flow and one sure way is to check your email frequently.  Several people suggested that they don’t do that and that the answer was to turn on email notifications instead – problem solved.  But, not really.  Instead of interrupting your own flow, you now have a little popup in the corner of your screen that interrupts you automatically.

His other point, was that email is just one form of communication and not always the best for the task.  I’m not a fan of having too many venues for information, but there certainly are times where some are better than others.  If you have information that should be accessible about procedures, product/project statuses, etc., perhaps a wiki would be a good place to keep people informed about the latest and greatest.

One major value of email lies in its ability to replace the old hardcopy memo.  Used to be that you’d get a memo in your mailbox telling you about a new company policy or upcoming meeting, you’d put the memo on your desk and a few hours later, it was buried and forgotten.  Email allows for much easier distribution of mass announcements.

One area that email gets dicier is when you want an answer to a complicated question.  I think in this day and age, especially for younger folks, the art of conversation is dying.  Picking up the phone or stopping by is considered an intrusion or something to be dreaded.  It’s so much easier to send an email and simply wait for a response.  Unfortunately, this is now the default behavior, even when it’s not the best option.  I’ve slogged through so many verbose, confusing emails that I’ve had to pick up the phone and ask what was going on.  What then was the point of spending a half hour composing it in the first place.  Some things are just so difficult to describe, they deserve a conversation.

One other time that email is a time-waster is when time is of the essence.  Sending an email and waiting for a response to a time-sensitive question will send you into a tizzy while you twiddle your thumbs waiting for an answer.  Why not just call first?  If you can’t get the person, send an email as a backup to the voicemail you should have left in the first place.

I started working in software before email was used in most office environments.  Back in the day, I’d get dozens of phone calls and office visits interrupting my day.  Over the years this transformed into receiving tens or over a hundred emails a day filled with FYIs, forwarded jokes, chain letters, spam, and actually important emails.  Balancing between the two is a nearly lost art, but if you work on it, it can benefit your productivity greatly.