Some days I get over a hundred emails. Often, 90% of those are a waste of my time, and that is after excluding junk mail and related marketing mumbo-jumbo. Why so much email fluff, not-quite-spam-spam? It’s because people don’t consider the human cost of sending an email.
The Email Cost Algorithm
To understand the productivity cost of an email, we need to consider the factors that go in to an email, and how they correlate to time.
First, some facts and assumptions regarding email reading speed.
- All emails are intended to be read by all recipients.
- The average American can read and comprehend at a rate between 250 and 400 words per minute.
- People read about 25% slower on a computer screen than on paper.
- We will assume the typical email reading speed is 250 words per minute.
Second, some facts and assumptions about email writing speed.
- Every word in an email must be composed by the author.
- Any text copy/pasted yields no net benefit to composition speed, since the author must first identify the source text and conduct the copy/paste operation.
- The average computer user composes 19 words per minute.
Third, we’ll present some ancillary facts.
- Typically, a person will spend 15-20 seconds reading a common email.
- Typically, a person will spend 51 seconds reading a newsletter email.
- The average worker in the US receives about 56 email messages per day.
You can take your best guess as to how much time email takes up based on all that information. My back-of-the-envelope guess is that the average worker will spend about 30 minutes a day composing email, and 30 minutes a day reading email.
That being said, how do you avoid wasting people’s time with email? By knowing when you should and should not send an email.
You should always send an email when:
- It is after hours, there is no other way to get in touch with someone, and you must make sure they received information from you at a given time. (Example: A client wants to know that their server is back online. You bring it online at 4AM. Send them an email, unless they explicitly told you to call them and wake them up.)
- You need a record of your correspondence or need to maintain an audit trail that can be used to prove (or disprove) facts in the future.
You should sometimes send an email when:
- You need to send a file or files to one or more people. Before sending, consider other solutions, such as YouSendIt, ShareFile, or 2Large2Email, to send your files.
- You are sending information to an large number of recipients and have no more efficient way to communicate to them. (Example: Your company has no intranet and you need to distribute a new HR policy. A better solution than email is to hire a web development company to build your intranet, then post the HR policy on the intranet.)
You should never send an email when:
- Typing the email takes longer than picking up the phone, dialing a phone number, waiting for someone to answer, and saying what you need to say.
- You are sending an email to people who don’t need to read it. If a recipient isn’t expected to provide feedback to your email, and the recipient doesn’t have a need to know the information contained in your email, they don’t need to receive it. In other words: carefully review every recipient in the To: and Cc: fields; if they don’t need to know, don’t waste their time.
Remember — if it isn’t important, don’t waste someone’s time with it; and if there’s a faster way to do it, do it the faster way.