What is "Email Jail" in the Workplace and How "Zero Inbox" Can Set You Free

Workplace Email Jail and How Zero Inbox Can Set You Free

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Email is a communication tool meant to help organizations send important information and collaborate on projects. It's straightforward enough, but it doesn't do its job as effectively as people think. Here's why email is bad for workplace productivity and how you can transition toward more optimal communication methods.

How Much Time Does Email Waste?

Email is a huge time waster, but most people don't realize the magnitude of the problem. It's estimated that 333.2 billion emails will be sent every day in 2022, and 85% are spam. Gmail alone blocks 100 million spam emails daily. The most widely used communication platform on the planet is infested with cyber threats, filling inboxes with pointless and potentially harmful messages.

About 99% of email users check their inboxes every day, sifting through the phishing attempts, marketing campaigns, subscription renewal reminders and other irrelevant content to find the few messages worth responding to. As a result, the average employee spends over 200 minutes checking their work email accounts every day.

Even so, most businesses still rely on email for their day-to-day communications. Just one employee sends or receives an average of 126 emails per day, but they only respond to 25%. Inboxes are getting fuller and click rates are increasing, but the amount of relevant information has stayed the same.

The email wastefulness problem will worsen as younger generations take up more of the workforce. Millennials check their emails several times each day because they use several devices and refresh their inboxes outside of work hours. Gen Z doesn't use email as much, but they receive more brand promotional emails, keeping the platform alive.

On the whole, American workers spend five hours a day using their email accounts, whether it's to filter spam or respond to the few emails worth their attention. 

Here are some specific problems with email communication in the workplace.

Key Problems With Email at Work

Email's primary flaws revolve around its lack of variety and accessibility. Although users can make minor adjustments to their inboxes by using spam folders and marking important messages, communication between users doesn't change. Workplaces have evolved in other areas, but they're still using the same old platform from decades ago.

Email Lacks Collaboration

Email is used to communicate with colleagues, but it's not a collaboration tool. It wasn't created to troubleshoot problems, manage projects or host real-time conversations between multiple people. It sends information from point A to point B, but modern workplace tasks are often more complex.

Email for work collaboration causes inboxes and email threads to become cluttered and confusing to follow, which hurts productivity. Many other project management systems and tools available today can assist daily tasks better than email.

Deskless Employees Don't Use Email

Deskless workers make up 72% of the workforce, but they don't use email and thus miss out on essential information. Keeping these employees in the loop and engaged is crucial for any business, but email isolates them and makes their jobs more difficult.

Email wasn't designed for mobile devices or business practices. It impedes on-the-go communication between employees, doing more harm than good to those who spend most of their work hours out of the office. As more employees take on hybrid or remote positions, businesses must adopt mobile-friendly communication methods to stay productive.

Email Becomes a To-Do List

As inboxes gather more essential information, accounts become more of a to-do list or task manager than a communication tool. Sifting through the spam and other irrelevant emails to find what you're looking for is an inefficient and frustrating way to juggle responsibilities.

Additionally, other personal and private tasks might arise that don't go through your email inbox, forcing you to bounce between platforms. This back-and-forth dilemma hurts short-term productivity and leads to an unorganized work environment in the long run.

Email Interrupts Work

The more an employee uses email, the more interruptions they experience throughout the day. The cognitive overload of emailing in the workplace, jumping from projects to inboxes, severely decreases focus and productivity. Every time people stop their current tasks to check inboxes, they lose all momentum and have to make abrupt mindset changes to read and answer emails.

You likely experience this problem regularly, even if you don't realize it. You're entrenched in a project, but then an "important" email pops up in your inbox and breaks your focus. You have to drop everything and form a professional response in a timely manner. On average, it takes nine minutes to return to the interrupted task after checking emails.

People can experience dozens of nine-minute interruptions every day. Projects get pushed back, and business operations slow down as a whole. Email is not a sufficient way to communicate in a fast-paced work setting.

Email Stresses You Out

Email adds undue stress to daily lives aside from its logistical shortcomings, lowering worker satisfaction and productivity. The effects of this additional stress are more harrowing than you think. Studies have observed that checking work emails increases our blood pressure, heart rates and cortisol levels, harming mental and physical health.

Think about the last time you opened your work email. An urgent message from your boss, dozens of unread messages from colleagues, spam and many other things have made you anxious. Simply keeping up with an overloaded inbox or opening your email at the beginning of the day can be stressful. 

The email problems discussed in previous sections also add to stress levels. Using a suboptimal communication platform, feeling isolated from colleagues, managing projects and dealing with work interruptions all make jobs harder and stress levels higher.

How to Get Out of Email Jail

If you want to escape email jail, you're not alone. Many businesses and entrepreneurs have envisioned a world without email where people use efficient and secure communication methods. Some have implemented new cloud communication technologies and started using applications like Google Chat, Microsoft Teams and Slack for easy employee collaboration.

However, you don't have to consider getting rid of email entirely. You can rethink the platform to create more effective email communication in the workplace. One new strategy shows great promise: the zero inbox method.

Zero Inbox Method

The zero inbox method, also known as the inbox zero outlook, was first coined by Merlin Mann, founder and writer of the 43 Folders blog. The "zero" refers to "the amount of time an employee's brain is in their inbox." Mann wants people to avoid wasting mental energy on email accounts, and he outlined three ways to do it:

  • Keep emails closed for most of the day.
  • Follow one of five principles for each email: delete, delegate, respond, defer or do.
  • Immediately respond to emails that you can answer in two minutes or less.

The first tactic seems simple enough, but you need to choose your email-checking times carefully. Some people only do this at the beginning and end of the day, while others designate times based on their schedules that day. If they're busy in the morning, they save their emails for the afternoon when things slow down. Find the times that avoid interrupting your workflow and optimize your productivity.

The second step tells you how to react to your emails. It's better to have a game plan than to enter your inbox with no clear course of action. You can spend less time on each message and get back to your other projects. Here's a quick overview of each principle:

  • Delete: Sometimes, getting rid of the email is the best course of action. Delete the spam and threads so you have an emptier inbox.
  • Delegate: Delegate the email to a colleague or subordinate if you don't have time to respond.
  • Respond: Only respond to the most relevant and time-sensitive emails.
  • Defer: If someone else is more qualified to answer the email, defer it to them.
  • Do: Not all emails need a response. If it's a simple request or project debriefing, skip the answer and get to work.

The anxiety of checking your inbox will decrease as you get more comfortable applying these principles. Simply knowing that you don't have to address every email will take some stress off your shoulders.

The third tactic comes from the book "Getting Things Done" by David Allen. Rather than procrastinating and adding to your stress, write those quick emails and get them out of your mind. You don't have to think hard about forming a two-minute response, so you should be able to resume your other project without skipping a beat.

All three tactics have one common goal: Devote as little time and energy as possible to your email. The zero inbox strategy doesn't need revolutionary inbox management systems to solve your problems with email communication in the workplace. 

There are many inbox zero apps and tools to help you achieve zero inbox. They can pause incoming messages, filter your inbox more efficiently than spam folders, archive emails and help generate quick replies. Update your tools and change your thought process to maximize your productivity.

Clean Your Inbox and Get Back to Work

Email wastes time, creates confusion and causes unnecessary stress in people's work lives. Even so, it remains the top communication tool for most businesses. Until there's a widespread transition to other platforms, you have to rethink your email practices to minimize the damage and achieve the equivalent of an empty inbox. Clean your inbox, try the zero inbox method and get back to your bigger responsibilities.