I have written before about emails being an incredible time stealer (see “Fifth Secret of Time Management” posted November 11, 2010), but having recently had a question asked by a friend on Facebook on how many emails people were handling daily, I felt it needed some more comment.

Source: User:MG via Wikimedia Commons; Licence: GFDL

When I was still working at SAP, I would generally have to deal with between 250-350 emails per day, which was an incredible burden, even when I followed all the rules of email management. I would regularly ask people to not cc me on emails, as if I wasn’t considered critical to be a direct recipient, I would be unlikely to just need to know. At one stage I even tried to get SAP to ban the “reply all” button just to try and bring this email number down, as I knew that I was not the only person in the company being drowned in email.

I found that everything that I did to try and minimise my email traffic afforded me just a short and only temporary respite, and within a short time the numbers rocketed up again. Even with the availability of reasonable filters, I found it hard to bring the numbers down, and I felt that handling emails had become a major part of my job description, despite the fact that it was not something I was being evaluated on and measured against.

Author: Aqw96 (own work) via Wikimedia Commons

I now, in semi-retirement, tend towards 50-100 emails per day, which is still more than I need but is much more manageable.

I still follow all my own rules, as in “Fifth Secret”. I only look at emails about 3 times per day, believing that by giving myself a fixed time to do them each time, I am a lot more succinct and bloody minded in their handling. I rarely touch them till about 10.00 am when I have had a chance to do the important and/or creative things for the first few hours of the day, as I know that most of the emails that I receive will result in my doing things for someone else.

But this ad hoc Facebook survey which showed that most senior business people are still in the range of over 250+ emails per day has made me wonder about whether today’s business communications styles, which are meant to make everyone more knowledgeable about what is happening, are actually creating an environment where business is harder to conduct because of overload and time wasting.

Assuming that the average email takes even just 30-40 seconds to process and respond to, at 200+ emails per day this equates to a minimum of about 2 hours per day on email management or about 25% of actual available time. If meetings then take up about 40% of available time of which 50% is wasted (see “Meetings Bloody Meetings” posted 18 April, 2010), this means that most executives and professionals have only about 1/2 of their time to plan, manage and execute on what is needed to effectively run their business or role, which is ultimately what they will be measured against.

I understand that these are a relatively simplistic set of calculations, but even if I am out by a factor of 100%, it is still pretty scary.

A study by the University of Michigan showed that executives spent about 50% of their time doing their core job, and about 50% on other non-core roles which included Team, Career, Innovator and Organisation roles, and that successful executives in high performing companies actually spend significantly more time on the non-core roles than those in lesser performing companies. But if one now removes the time wasted through emails (25%) and wasted meeting time (20%), and executives then have only 50% of their real time available, which parts of their role suffer the most? I believe that this time pressure forces most executives to focus the time that they do have available on their core role, and what suffers is their planning, innovation, peer teamwork, work for the overall corporation and time spent on their personal learning and growth, all functions which the University of Michigan study shows are critical for both individual and company success.

Apple iPhone 3G(left) and Samsung Blackjack II(right); Author: whalesalad via Wikimedia Commons

I find it no wonder that many senior people I meet and work with find it hard to balance their lives, working in excess of 60-80 hours per week just to keep up. I am not a great believer in the whole work/life balance obsession per se, but I am a believer in the fact that most executives and senior professionals could work significantly less, and be significantly more successful, if they could get better control of their time, and managing emails (and meetings) is a great place to start for considerable return.
Too many people now define their importance and personal worth based on how many emails they get, based on a twist to Descartes famous line becoming “I get email, therefore I am.”



  1. Tim Ebbeck says:

    Spot on Les….people need to be talked with, not emailed to…and let’s face it, peoplevare the ones that make the difference…

  2. leshayman says:

    Hi Tim … Like you I have long believed that people are the only sustainable competitive advantage.

    How is the best job in SAP going ? I always felt that Sydney was about the furthest simultaneously that you could get away from Walldorf and Philadelphia, making it the perfect SAP location. 🙂


  3. Ian Couper says:

    Hi Les, A few random observations.

    Volume of email is strongly influenced by the internals of the company. For example during my time at Or**le (I think you know them!) virtually every sales transaction needed a special approval due to non-standard T&Cs which resulted in huge email volumes. So is the problem email or is the problem that everything is negotiable?

    My rule on my Inbox was that if I was cc’d then no reply was needed and if the email was ‘To’ me then there was a call to action from me.

    Is a conversation better than a concise well crafted email?

    There was a successful nationwide mobile phone retailer in the UK which banned internal email but I have yet to see that catch on!

    Could 250 emails per day be replaced with 250 conversations per day?

    Conversations are great for negotiation, problem resolution etc etc ……. but now I think I am venturing too far into the joys and problems of bl**dy meetings!

    Bién cordialement, Ian

    • leshayman says:

      Hi Ian,
      i agree that email culture is very company specific, but I do not agree that 250 emails would need to be replaced by 250 conversations, as most emails tend to be “for information” … particularly “cover my arse” emails or when I wish to tell someone that they are an idiot but I want others to know and emails that are structured so that those above and around know what a great guy I am. Like meetings culture, emails could be reduced if companies get their comms and authority levels structured properly.
      An old colleague at SAP has suggested that there is a chargeback to cost centre per participant on all emails sent … I think it is a “De Bono” style idea.

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