Email Overwhelm? The Digital Vortex of Time 5

I bought my first personal computer in 1986 in Lawton, OK while at the Field Artillery Officer’s Advanced Course.  The IBM PC Jr. was little more than a word processor, calculator and organizer of digital 3 X 5 cards.  And, it was the coolest thing ever.

The Wonderful IBM PC Jr.

The Wonderful IBM PC Jr.

Fast forward 1994….my first email address…  SomethingSomethingSomething@Compuserve.Com.   For those of you too young to experience going from a world with no email to a world with email, that was something special.  Nothing short of amazing.  Fast forward to 2014… email is amazing alright.  An amazing pain in the …

Before email I considered myself as productive as could be.  I got more out of an 8 hour (ok, 10-11 hour) day than anyone I knew. The advent of the digital bombardment has changed the context of the workday (and night). Email (not to mention texts, alerts, web browsing, instant messaging (don’t get me started!)) has created the ‘right here, right now’ mentality that can reduce the most focused person to a perennial daydreamer.  Oh, and did I mention Facebook, LinkedIn, etc… These days, armed with the latest and greatest technology I go home literally asking myself on the commute – ‘Did I get anything done today’?

I carry three devices; Windows Phone Lumia 1520, iPad Mini, and MSFT Surface Pro 2.  Actually, a 4th is the Kindle Paperwhite which I use because it’s the only device I can’t get ‘notifications’ i.e., distracted from performing the mission at hand.  I want for nothing re: software/hardware.

An email comes in, and each device jingles.  That was a neat feature early on.  Currently, the number of jingles per minute could keep a cartoon character dancing 24 hours a day. Yes, I know I should turn off  notifications, but perhaps I don’t because deep down I am still amazed this technology exists. With each passing day, the bombardment increases, and I just don’t know what to do.  I am constantly behind, and hopelessness is setting in.  Is there a 12 step program for Email?

Does this sound familiar to anyone?

Several years ago, the email overwhelm wasn’t so bad, I just didn’t know how to organize it and collate the information it contained.  Our company hired a consulting firm, McGhee Productivity Solutions,  to come in and teach us Outlook.  Their Email and Communication Program was fantastic, the instructor (Jennifer Wilmoth) a joy to work with (and still is to this day).  My assessment of the program was it created an environment where we could be exponentially more productive, collaborative, and communicative. And we were/are.  I learned techniques for converting email to tasks and calendar items; I learned the 4 D’s (do, delete, delegate, defer). Sending email to OneNote. All the great systems. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the more efficient I became, the more I feel like I could take on. And, if you’re like me and think you are Superman…take on more than is realistically possible.  So, the past years I have allowed a digital vortex to surround me.  Schedule an hour in the morning, an hour in the afternoon (while ‘working offline’)…sure, good luck with that. Constantly playing defense, never being ‘caught up’, and feeling like I always am disappointing someone by failing to respond in a timely and focused manner.

I can’t work any harder, I believe I work smarter… so what am I to do?

I feel digital overwhelm is one of the biggest challenges facing executives today.  Do I have company in this  maelstrom? Let’s all help each other out, how do you handle the digital vortex. I’d welcome hearing thoughts, suggestions, comments, and real life stories.


  1. Great Article !

    You know what, you guys are already more advanced than the majority of people working with e-mail. You had training, and a good one it seems.

    It is odd to see that the tool many people use most of their time is left untrained in most companies. While if you make Outlook work for you, you can be more efficient.

    Some of our teams did a training course on it, and that was really an eye opener. Some important lessons learned were I believe :
    INBOX : open it only on fixed moments. Dont use those notifications as you mentioned 🙂 Even al slight pop up distracts us mentally for a couple of minutes. When you open mail : do it, delete it, delegate it or defer it by moving it to for example your agenda. But dont open it, and close it with the same 100 e-mails in there.
    Unsubscribe from newsletters. Let outlook send newsletter to another inbox with simple rules. If it’s from your boss, make it come in bold 😉
    WRITING : there is a whole theory, but you should start by saying what you want from the person, and not do those European 2 pagers (:-)) where you have to scan every line and find out if you need to do something. Keep it short and simple. Some stuff is not put on e-mail all together.
    OUTBOX : avoid reply all (!!), avoid adding people in cc

    In general the NOW issue you described is also not helping. e-mail was never intended to be a synchronous communication mechanism. If you want immediate response there is this spooky high tech device called : a phone. Scary shit.

    Having said all this. It is still overwhelming and not slowing down at all. Someone C level person at Microsoft said : “My job is going to meetings and deleting e-mails.”

    It is hard to control external people, but internally I think we need to spend some time reflecting on this, how this is ‘boomeranging’ on us in terms of eficiency, and make everyone aware we have a phone if things are urgent.

  2. In addition to Gunther’s good advice above, leave your work email at work; no forwarding to your phone or tablet. If you go home you’re doing so because you’re done working, otherwise you’d be eating dinner at your desk. No one is *that* important; even the president sleeps.

    This will make your life at work easier as well. Nothing is as ridiculous as being in the restroom and hearing an audible notification coming from a stall. If you must be tethered to your phone, let it be for actual phone calls. Even then, don’t answer a call from someone who is not in your phone book. If it’s important enough they’ll leave a message. Over time, your phone book will become populated with the people you feel need to be in there (be judicious).

  3. Every time I hear the ding of a new e-mail, voicemail, or appointment come across my technical device I’m reminded of Pavlov’s study of Unconditional Response…

    Is there really a difference between dogs salivating when they hear the ringing of a bell and me immediately picking up my device when it chirps…?

    I’m done being Pavlov’s dog!

    • Larry, thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my blog… I am right there with you. You know it’s bad when your 5 year old says ‘Daddy, every time the phone rings….’.

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