Information Overload: The E-Mail Problem

Chris Schroeder – CEO of Health Central Network – bragged at a recent information-publishers’ conference that there were 2,000 items in his RSS feed inbox awaiting his attention. When I read this in an article by Bob Bly, I couldn’t help but shake my head.

“I have news for Mr. Schroeder,” Bob wrote. “If you have 2,000 unread items in your RSS feed, it is anything BUT an ideal way of getting information. Over-subscribing to free content via RSS feeds is an invitation to information overload disaster – equivalent to getting a Sunday New York Times delivered to your door every day of the year.”

Bob is dead right.

E-mail information overload, in particular, is a huge problem for entrepreneurs and small-business owners. Unfortunately, most of us are more or less addicted to it. Consider these facts, according to an eROI survey:

• 66 percent of Americans read e-mail seven days a week.

• 61 percent continue to check e-mail while on vacation.

• 41 percent check e-mail first thing in the morning.

• 26 percent say they can’t go more than two to three days without checking e-mail.

Is that bad?

I believe it is. For one thing, it is a significant cause of stress. In Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload, Mark Hurst says, “It may sound enticing to subscribe to the latest e-newsletter, but it’s demoralizing to see a pile of issues awaiting reading….”

But stress is just one problem. Consider this: A psychiatrist at London’s King’s College administered IQ tests to three groups. Group 1 did nothing but perform the IQ test. Group 2 was distracted by e-mail and ringing phones. Group 3 was stoned on marijuana. Unsurprisingly, Group 1 did better – by an average of 10 points – than the other groups. The e-mailers, however, did – on average – six points worse than the stoners.

As Gertrude Stein pointed out long before e-mail was invented, “Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.”

If you want to work smart and happily (and who doesn’t?), you need to get control over your e-mail inbox.

The first step, says Tim Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Work Week, is not to feel guilty. “Recognize that you receive too much information. It’s not your fault. Just accept that there is more information than time, and that it’s increasing every day.”

Ferriss says that there are three ways to deal with e-mail overload. You can “live by reaction” and feel increasingly stressed and confused. You can opt out by not reading anything. Or you can practice “bit literacy” by getting “some information – the right information – without trying to get all of it.”

He recommends going on a “media diet” – i.e., getting rid of most of what is coming into your e-mail box and keeping only that which provides useful information on a reliable basis.

You can then divide the good stuff into “worth scanning” and “solid gold.” E-mails worth scanning are from sources that reliably deliver at least some relevant information. Solid-gold e-mails are from those rare sources that provide useful tips and insights every single time.

I would like to think that you would put both Early to Rise and Ready, Fire, Aim into your solid-gold category.

Your solid-gold e-mails should be read first. And both your solid-gold and worth-scanning e-mails should be read not thoroughly but intelligently and strategically – the same way as I’ve suggested business books should be read.

But even after whittling your inbox down to these two categories and reading the information strategically, you may find that you are still spending too much time on e-mail.

If that is the case, follow the Power of One rule. Scan your solid-gold e-mails until you find one good and useful idea – an idea you can implement immediately. Then stop reading.

Remember, you don’t have to know everything – or even most of what there is to know – to succeed at most endeavors. There are hundreds of ways to make money on the Internet, for example, but you can easily make a six-figure income by using only a few of them.

And finally, I’d recommend – as I have so many times in ETR – that you open your e-mail only once a day, toward the end of the day.

I have repeatedly found that if I read my e-mails first thing in the morning, as so many people do, I’m emotionally exhausted by the time I finish. It saps my energy when I need it most. And then, lacking energy, I don’t want to do anything very difficult or important. So I find myself taking care of “clean up” or “preparation” tasks – the kind that make you feel organized but don’t advance your career or help you achieve any of your major objectives.

I have also found that when I try to deal with work-related e-mail in the morning, I spend about twice as much time on it as I should. That’s because I tend to get involved in “discussions” that are unimportant or irrelevant to my goals.

That type of e-mail is full of the problems that other people are trying to get you to solve for them. If you ignore it until the end of the day, you will find that much of it already will have been taken care of – leaving more time for you to take advantage of the really good stuff, the information-packed, solid-gold e-mails that you really want and need.

[Ed. Note: How many e-mails do you get each day? What do you do to curb the information overload? Let us know right here.]

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]
  • Penny

    I have a major frustration…that is I have recently started getting multiple mailings of newsletters and e-zines…easy to delete one, yet still annoying and takes time. My bigger challenge is that 90% of my work taskings come via e-mail so I have to check email first thing and several times during the day in order to litterally do my job and know what imppacts my schedule.