An Email to Help With Email

After I interviewed Quicken Loans’ Chairman Dan Gilbert on my radio program last week, he and I were commiserating about our unceasing volumes of e-mail.  We’re bailing messages out of our Blackberries, but our buckets seem inadequate to keep pace with the incoming volume.  Then I was talking with someone at a reception the next day, and she said, “multi-tasking has changed the world, and there is nothing we can do about it.”   Well, to me that last clause has always been like a red cape in front of a raging bull.  “Nothing we can do????”
I am determined to fight back this week.  Fight for myself.  For my kids.  And offer aid to my co-workers and friends.  Because I’m quite sure this multi-tasking’s not all good.  There are two aspects that demand resistance. 
First, there is mounting evidence that multi-tasking diminishes overall productivity.  Dr. David Meyer, Chair of the Cognition and Perception Area in the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan* is one of a number of researchers who have been observing people as they attempt to multi-task and carefully clocking times and results.  Dr. Meyer says that as people toggle, for instance, from email to other computer work, or from driving to cell phone calls, his clinical work is proving that their minds routinely lose time in the switch.  The one-second or so loss, Meyer suggests, can be fatal when you’re driving at 60 miles per hour and your concentration must be re-adjusted.  Researchers suggest we try serial activity — finish one thing, then start the next – as a way to more efficiently get the work done.  My commitment: I will NOT switch to email while in the middle of key concentration work this week, and I won’t drive-and-talk.
Perhaps even more damaging than the switching between work and work, is the multitasking between work and people.  I asked a roomful of HR managers last week how many were doing email and voicemail between 7 pm and 7 am.  About 70% of the hands went up.  I didn’t ask how many had kids.  Or how many of their kids were talking to them while they were emailing.  I am guilty of it.  Too often.  I make kids and co-workers and my spouse wait, as I follow the trail of an email whose rectangular flag has grabbed my attention.  How do I measure that loss?  More important, how do I start to get it back?
I LOVE email, but if you’re like me you’ve got to manage it better to lead
With your best self,


*  You can read a press release about one of Dr. Meyer’s studies here:

  • I agree with your comment that we can do something about multi-tasking. Here at St John Health, one of the 10 principles of leadership, we practice is “To Be in the Moment”. We need to be fully engage, mentally and physically, in what you are doing, whether it is listening to a coworker or writing an email. This holds so true, with your family.

    Thanks for the reinforcment.

  • Thanks for the jolt. I was working on one thing when your email came in. I switched what I was doing to read it, read the first few sentences, then *almost* switched to something else – who knows if it was back to the original focus or something completely different.

    Instead, I chose to read on. And now I comment. And now I’m done. Ready to move on to the next thing with perhaps a little more focus. Only time will tell. But it won’t take too much time to know.


  • I am of the generation where multi-tasking was promoted heavily in college as a skill to develop. Now that I’ve been in the real world for quite some years, I know that is an overrated skill. Multi-tasking means you’re not giving something (family, work, personal time) 100%. The real challenge is how to break that culture from the top down in organizations. Our leaders give the rest of us in the company permission to multi-task because they do it. Typing emails, taking that phone call, or stopping a co-worker as they walk by their office while in meetings with others. Let’s start the revolution!

  • A very timely subject. Much of the work related e-mail we receive is the product of folks who will not make the critical/courteous decision regarding which addressees really need to know and act on the message they are sending. Technology makes it so easy to flood everyone’s inbox with a copy of everything one creates. The burden is then on the recipient to sort through and find the critical mail. No wonder we are so harried and try to do it all at once.
    Literally hundreds of messages a day show up in the inbox because the sender doesn’t review the address/cc list before hitting send…not that I want to dwell in the past, but having to make multiple carbon copies or run photocopies had some consequences for the sender who would/could not pare down the addressee/cc list. Solutions to put some of the burden on the sender would help…maybe an e-mail budget?

  • I have a Blackberry on trial from my company, which is considering buying the things for everyone. It’s as demanding and distracting as a television left on in a public place. I found myself fooling with it during a very valuable meeting last week, trying to be surreptitious about it, of course. I had been irritated by others doing that in meetings, and I was doing it myself! Eventually, I put the thing in my bag and endured the withdrawal pangs until break. The only way.

  • Hi Dan! I think it was the conversation you and I had last Thursday that you refer to in the first paragraph. Actually, what I said was that we now live in the age of permanent partial attention–where no one ever gets someone else’s full attention, and no one gives anyone else their full attention. And you said that you wouldn’t accept that this was really a permanent situation. My husband and I had this same conversation yesterday with a close friend who is a lawyer at a large high-powered law firm in Chicago. He concurred with our statement about the permanent partial inattention syndrome, and noted that when he was driving on the highway to meet us yesterday, he had been on the phone the whole time AND also checking e-mail on his Blackberry. I told him that was horrible and dangerous not just to himself but also to others. His reaction was that his clients expected him to respond to their e-mails and calls immediately, 24/7. I responded that I was sure that his clients didn’t expect him to do that while he was driving, and it was dangerous. He responded, in turn, that, yes, if asked, his clients would say that he shouldn’t respond if it was unsafe; however, at the same time, the clients still expected immediate responses to their issues, as inconsistent as that seems, and as they effectively pay his mortgage, he wouldn’t be changing his approach. I found this all very disturbing, and as much as I agree with the your plea in your column, I still believe that, unfortunately, this age of permanent partial attention is here to stay, notwithstanding the research that serial activity produces better and more efficient work.

  • A manager once told me that I would have to learn to multi-task to improve my production. The next day, I told her, with excitement, that I had practiced multi-tasking the prior evening. While closing a drawer with my hand, I had used my foot to close another drawer in adjacent section of our kitchen. I felt great accomplishment.

    Frankly, some would compare the functional expections of multi-tasking to the activities of the ADHD mind. Few can focus on more than one function/task. Did I mention that I almost fell when I was reaching with my leg to close the other drawer? And productivity; it took time to balance myself before I could return to the task of preparing the meal.

  • When I received your e-mail I was in fact multi-tasking. I know that there are times when I also do this with the children. From this point forward I plan to try and cut down and go back to the hierarchy method.

  • As with any change, this avoiding multi-tasking and giving each and every person and task our full attention, must start with us. And then, we must spread the word, which I did by forwarding Dan’s e-mail to friends and family – some of whom multi-task, and others who try at all costs to avoid it. I’m with Michelle, let’s start the revolution as a grass roots effort, hopefully, showing Emily that this need not be a permanent condition. Multi-tasking can lead to the dehumanization of humanity, and the question is – do you want to be dehumanized?

  • Dan,
    Please remove me from your spam filter…kidding! This topic is near and dear to all of us. Fast Company Magazine’s Dec 06/Jan 07 issue has a great, short article (4 paragraphs) entitled “An E-TOOL Bill of Rights: A strategy to save us from our digitally addicted selves” at
    Perhaps it could be adopted at one of our respective great places to work.
    Now, go lead with the shortest e-mail possible…Or skip it all together.

    Brother James

  • I am a senior citizen or something. Have been using a computer for about 30 years. One of the best inventions in the last century, if used properly. I, like a lot of the other responses try to take care of more than one thing at time and end up not getting as much done as if I had finished a task before I went to another. I now try only to let the phone interrupt what I am doing.

  • Great topic, I have noticed that as I “mature” it is more important to stay in the moment! I kicked the habit after our Windows system upgrade came with the nifty screen flash that showed a clip of the new email. It was so distracting to read the new email and lose track of where I had been before the breaking news came in.

    Everything in moderation…including “time saving” technology!

  • Dan – you (and Dr. Meyer) are right on target about the real solution to multi-tasking; doing several things at once simply does not work effectively. The guy who really has this figured out is David Allen ( who has taught and written about this issue for years. We use a lot of David’s philosophy and methods in our own Personal Productivity in a Multi-Tasking World courses and workshops. The keys are clarity about desired outcomes, breaking multi-step projects into small bites, tracking commitments and next actions, and keeping our head empty – the brain makes a really terrible filing cabinet!

  • An E-tool bill of rights is great, but who has the time to wait for someone else to do something? Leaders can stop the email assault whenever they choose to. Don’t hold a meeting. Don’t have training sessions. Don’t establish new policies. Just start to role model these four behaviors.

    1) Use the subject line for the entire message whenever possible with brackets (EOM) meaning “end of message”.

    2)Return emails that are obviously FYI or SYA and tell co-workers that you trust them enough to not need to be a participant or observer of every conversation. Identify the three highest volume sources every day for a week and CALL those people with the same message. These 15 people are probably 65% of your inbox.

    3)Set aside messages that pertain to your biggest (only one) project instead of “reply all” or copying to the entire staff. Then send one brief, cut and paste email. When you see multiple emails from others ask them to do the same.

    4)Eliminate as many attachments as possible, and make sure the ones you send are titled so that people know what is in them without having to open them.

    That’s right. Take on more work to eliminate work. After five days your inbox will be half what it was, you will be the company expert, and what you are role modeling will start to spread. The only obstacle is that many leaders believe that the system, and the culture, cannot change, or that it should be changed by someone above or below them.
    Tom Nugent
    LeadershipCoaching (at)

  • As a parent and teacher, I thank you for pointing out how multi-tasking diminishes one’s ability to be present with loved ones. My heart cringes as I see adults using their cell phones in the car, in the store, etc. without regard to the presence of their children. I’ve also witnessed, what appears to be, a single parent taking their child out for a meal and spending the time reading a newspaper – no discourse with the child throughout the entire meal. Sends a pretty powerful message to young people.

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us.
    Judy Sauer

  • I totally agree with this message and think that people use email inappropriately because we received no training on how to use it. Technology is only as good as we make it. Often times, people send thoughtless emails and end up sending multiple responses because their first email was not thought out well enough to provide all the relevant details. Also, I have noticed that sometimes people email when a phone call would have been more more efficient.

    Thanks for writing this and I hope you will write more on the proper use of email and the proper use of meetings. I think some people have too many meetings too that are inefficient and waste a lot valuable time.

  • Interesting topic! As a REALTOR, multi-tasking is my life: cell phone, PDA, Laptop, Email (personal and business), face to face meetings, civic engagement and balancing work-life-family commitments. Bottom line multi-tasking is a reality of running my own business and staying competitive in the real estate market. I know that I am not available to my clients within a reasonable time frame someone else will be–so being accessible, being efficient and providing “knock the socks off customer-service” is essential for my business to survive in this market.

    Multi-tasking can be a venue for stream lining efficiency but in all things establishing reasonable boundaries is critical. For example: when driving don’t answer text messages, emails, cell phone calls or have the mobile office signed on for internet access. Plus use technology such as ACT Software or Top Producer to enhance organization, generate reports, and to work smarter not harder. Bottom line, be in the moment and focused on the task at hand: be it listening to a child, helping a child with homework, or presenting information to a potential client or existing client.

  • I wholeheartedly agree about ‘being in the moment’. We need to be very careful that in this age of blackberries and cell phones, we don’t forget the courtesies of human interaction. I will applaud the manager or team leader that starts a meeting by asking everyone to “turn off your blackberries during this meeting”. Technology most definitely has its place in this world, but let us not allow rudeness to become its companion.

  • When I ordered your new leadership book on, I also ordered a book called “The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your Email Before It Manages You.” It has a lot of good ideas in it about managing and reducing email and impacting your colleagues about doing the same. I do not think I agree with all of his recommendations, but some of them are very helpful. Might want to take a look at it, or share it with your readers.

  • We have an email system at my school and it is a great thing for taking care of the routine stuff such as reminders and due dates. I think email and electronic communications can be a wonderful tool but it doesn’t solve everything or automatically save time.
    For one thing, I can formulate ideas and respond to questions more quickly when I speak. It takes more time when I type. In a verbal conversation it is easier to pick up on the tone of voice and answer questions as they occur in the context of the conversation. In most instances, I prefer a live phone conversation over the exchange of email volleys anytime. Having said that, I am always grateful that my son can email his family from Iraq!

  • How to get out of Email jail
    Thanks for this article, Dan. In my seminars I find that email is now the #1 time-waster. Here’s my take on it: The more you give in to distraction, the more you look for distraction. We have the false notion that cleaning up emails, getting them out of the way, is productive. It’s not. It’s like clearing the last leaf from your lawn. As soon as you put your rake in the garage (blower now, I suppose), there’s another leaf on the ground. The ultimate I’ve heard is about a man — just before a nervous breakdown — who was on his driveway at 3:00am in the rain with his leaf-blower! Email is never done — get over it! Let the leaves, dishes, laundry, email pile up for a while.

    The solution: Let the “executive mental control” that Meyer writes about take over. Limit the times you look at email each day to 1, 2, or 3 specific times. For many people that means: First thing in the morning (unless you have superhuman control and can actually make yourself do what is important before doing what’s urgent), after lunch, and before going home. There is no email that can’t wait 2 or 3 hours. Of course, both the sender and receiver need to acknowledge that. The sender, in the case of bosses or clients, need to give up the power they yield by letting you not have to slavishly jump to their every whim and command the moment they send you an email. On our part, as receivers, we need to give up the false image we have of our own importance. The sender will survive an hour or two without your godlike response.

    • Excellent comments on managing the email. It seems to me that I am in charge of my email..not the other way around. I am not on call 24/7. If the problem is serious enough to require my immediate attention someone should tell me in person or pick up the phone!

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