Does email make us more productive? Has the pendulum swung so far that email has become a productivity drain? Good questions, posted yesterday by Ben Worthen of The Wall Street Journal in Tech Companies Join to Stop Email Addiction:

How bad a problem is information pollution? A typical office worker checks email more than 50 times a day, instant messages 77 times and visits 40-plus Web sites a day, according to study by tracking-software maker RescueTime cited by the Times. The research company Basex, which is a member of the IORG, last year reported that businesses waste $650 billion a year because of information pollution. Most of that is the productivity hit workers take when they’re interrupted by an email or other message – often for something inconsequential – and the time it takes to refocus on the task at hand.

Some very big corporate names are worried about this, worried enough to form the Information Overload Research Group. Writing in The New York Times, Matt Richtel called it Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast:

The big chip maker Intel found in an eight-month internal study that some employees who were encouraged to limit digital interruptions said they were more productive and creative as a result.

Intel and other companies are already experimenting with solutions. Small units at some companies are encouraging workers to check e-mail messages less frequently, to send group messages more judiciously and to avoid letting the drumbeat of digital missives constantly shake up and reorder to-do lists.

A Google software engineer last week introduced E-Mail Addict, an experimental feature for the company’s e-mail service that lets people cut themselves off from their in-boxes for 15 minutes.

Jonathan Spira, chief analyst at the research firm Basex and a member of the new group’s board, said the companies realized they faced a monster of their own creation. He pointed to a Silicon Valley maxim that companies should “eat their own dog food,” meaning they should make use of their own innovations.

“They’re realizing they’re eating too much,” Mr. Spira said.

Many people readily recognize that they face — or invite — continual interruption, but the emerging data on the scale of the problem may come as a surprise.

I think this may be part of a common cycle, in which the new tech capabilities make us more productive for a while, then expectations catch up. Or, in the case of email, realities engulf us.

Tim Berry
Palo Alto Software

Tim BerryTim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Follow him on Twitter @Timberry.