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Organizational fatigue: 5 things to consider before hitting send on that email

In their compelling article, How to think straight in the age of information overload,” Susie East and Ben Tinker offer tremendous insights into how “decision fatigue” can negatively impact our ability to function.  Particularly in relation to our work colleagues, what are we doing to either reduce or increase decision fatigue with the number of emails that we send?  Whether in our roles as leaders, followers or teammates, we need to consider and put into check just how much noise we are creating with email and how that may be limiting our effectiveness.

According to The Radicati Group, in their 2011 study, the typical corporate email user was sending and receiving about 105 email messages per day. In the study, they estimated that would jump to 125 per day by 2015. A 2012  McKinsey studyrevealed that the average American worker was spending 2.6 hours per day on email.

Considering the East/Tinker article, I was struck by the amount of decision fatigue we must all experience and how much of that can be traced back to email traffic. This excludes how that compounds the other normal day to day demands we all experience in our roles.  It made me reflect back to when I started my career in the mid-1980’s. At that time if an office had a fax machine, that was a big deal. Letters were still typed on IBM Selectric typewriters. We had phone systems that did not have voice mail and we had to rely on a person to actually take a message so our intended target could get back to us.  So, why this digression into the technological dark ages?

In those days we did not have instant access to information or each other so we had to be strategic and thoughtful about our communication. We had to weigh what was important and urgent versus other priorities given that our interactions with one another were decidedly more limited than today.  In short, it made us more accountable to save up our list of things to discuss and also made us more responsible to one another to succinctly and thoughtfully outline our discussions so that collaboration and decision making could occur.

So what’s happened?  From my perspective we want information now, maybe we have forgotten what good communication really is or perhaps we want to shift the burden to someone else and often we don’t even think before hitting send.  The result is a flurry of poorly conceived requests for information, often without context, and attempts to problem solve over the “wire” when things need to be discussed and context shared.  Further, it’s as if we feel we can lob things over to another person to digest and respond to and in effect shift the burden to someone else. After all, it’s now their responsibility to respond, right?

What if people stopped responding to you because your emails did not provide enough information or because you failed to provide enough context for a response. Moreover, what if the issue is more complex and actually requires a discussion? And what can be said about the company-wide happy birthday loops?

We are failing each other and adding to decision fatigue. As leaders and teammates, we have an acute responsibility to own our communication and connect with one another in more thoughtful and well planned ways. Following are some guidelines you may want to consider before hitting send on that email:

  1. Can it wait until the next conversation and better yet, should you schedule a time to speak to cover multiple items?

  2. How important and urgent is it? If it’s important and urgent, pick up the phone. If it’s just important but can wait, see #1 above.

  3. Are you just sharing an update or general information and does the recipient even care? Either way, if it’s important enough to share, perhaps you should go back to #1, above.

  4. If you need someone to weigh in on a decision, how much more efficient will it be simply outlining the situation in a brief conversation versus starting a potentially draining email exchange that may invariably end up in a clarifying discussion anyway? Time well-wasted. Again, see #1, above.

  5. Are you trying to shift the monkey onto someone else’s back or do you still own the situation? Either way, should you just go back to #1, above?

Email clearly has its place in our daily lives and can be an invaluable resource. Just how valuable, though, is directly proportionate to the amount of effort we each take to reduce the noise and the resulting decision and organizational fatigue.

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