Revisiting Microsoft’s Email Overload Scale

In a previous blog entry I discussed the Email Overload Scale paper from Microsoft Research.  One of the things they did in that paper was ask a number of subjective questions about how people felt about their email load and then correlated some of those questions with actual email usage stats collected from those people.

They suggested that other researchers incorporate those questions into their studies on email overload to provide a broader perspective on the varying factors contributing to the problem, so we did exactly that in the ClearContext Email Usage Survey.  Over on the company blog, Brad has done a lot of great analysis on the overall survey results, but I wanted to spend some time focusing on how some of our results related to what the MS Research guys saw in their project.

The questions that Microsoft Research suggested asking were the following:

I feel I spend too much time keeping up with my email
Email cuts into time I wanted to spend on other tasks
I have trouble keeping up with email on days I am away from my desk
I get too much email
I spend too much time getting rid of unimportant messages
I am satisfied with the strategy I use to keep up with my mail
When I return from vacation/time off, I feel overwhelmed when triaging my mail
Sometimes my emails may get lost or missed

I cross-tabulated the answers to those questions with a variety of the email usage questions we asked.  Here are a few interesting things  I found.

Dealing with email after being away from their desk or on vacation is a problem of comparable magnitude for everyone, regardless of the types and volumes of email they receive.  Clearly, tools and strategies to deal with quickly processing large volumes of email are very important for businesses and vendors to put in place.  Something that sounds right up my alley…

Some types of email volume had no real impact on users.  Just as the MS Research study saw, we observed no relationship between the amount of newsletter/distribution list type email users received and their feelings of email overload.  Anecdotal remarks show that users feel comfortable using rules and other techniques to quickly move through that type of email content.

A more surprising, and perhaps troubling, fact was that there was very little correlation between users who use productivity methodologies and how overloaded they feel by email. This is quite likely a function of how well users are at actually sticking to these methododologies.  It appears that many users adopt methodologies, but these methodologies are prone to falling apart as they receive higher volumes of email and emails that take more time each to process. 

There were two points where we saw a correlation (albeit not an especially strong one, but still a relatively direct one) where the MS Research study did not mention finding any correlation.  We found that people definitely felt more overloaded based on both the total number of emails they received on a daily basis as well as how often they check their email.  Many email productivity techniques advise users to only check email at specific times, and this data seems to agree that that’s likely a good idea for most users.

Two things clearly stood out by a wide margin as the strongest factors influencing feelings of email overload. 

The first was how many emails people keep in their inbox.  The degree of email overload felt by users increases drastically as they keep more and more emails in their inbox. Most of the email productivity methodologies out there recommend keeping the number of emails in your inbox low, but even among those using methodologies, many users are not able to adhere to this goal.  However, it is clearly a very important factor in keeping on top of email.  Things like having to make multiple passes of email to process messages, searching through a long list of emails to find info, and the general pressure of an unorganized and huge ‘Inbox-as-pseudo-task-list’ lead to an overwhelming feeling of email overload.  This is perhaps the single most important factor that users have direct control over that can help them feel in control of their email.  Try out some productivity methodologies and email tools.  Find a combination of tools and techniques that let you keep the number of messages in your inbox low.  You’ll feel way more in control and on top of your email.

The second huge correlation is unfortunately one that most people don’t have much control over.  While there was a slight correlation between how many emails people received and how overloaded they feel, there was a very strong correlation between how many work related emails people receive and how overloaded they feel.  From remarks in the survey, it is very clear that many of these emails are much more than informational in nature.  Many of these individual emails generate large amounts of work and discussion and have the potential to really derail people from what they are trying to focus on.  Users can do their part to manage this problem by only checking email and dealing with it at specific times as opposed to letting email make their workday completely interrupt-driven.  But, more importantly, businesses need to understand the impact that excessive use of email can have on overall productivity and create an overall corporate email usage strategy that takes that into account.

I hope you found these insights useful.  For any of you who are interested in a more scientific look at some of this data, please let me know and I can share some of the raw data with you.

3 Responses to “Revisiting Microsoft’s Email Overload Scale”

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