July 20, 2010— -- How many work emails can you stomach before you cry "Uncle!"?
According to a recent survey by Harris Interactive, the magic number for many an employee is 50 a day. Once they head north of that number, most say they can't keep up.
The survey, commissioned by email provider Intermedia, questioned about 2,000 American adults in June. It posed the email threshold query to roughly 340 employees of small businesses.
Only six percent said they could bear more than 50 emails a day.
"We certainly see email as having replaced the phone as the most important business tool," said Jonathan McCormick, COO of Intermedia. But "one in five are feeling like they're under pressure."
The situation gets even worse for the smartphone-toting set, he said. Though just 38 percent of the people said they use smartphones, 37 percent of that group said they experienced email overload, compared to only12 percent of the less connected group.
But as email-ready devices continue to flood the market and the demands of a competitive workplace continue to climb, experts say more and more of us are going to find ourselves struggling to beat email-enabled stress.
"All of this new technology, which gives us wonderful advantages and wonderful tools comes with real challenges. And it gets more challenging because it can come to us much faster and from so many directions," said Joanne Cantor, director of the Center for Communication Research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and author of "Conquer CyberOverload."
Web-monitoring firm Pingdom estimates that in 2009, 90 trillion e-mails, or 247 billion email messages a day, made their way through cyberspace. And those figures are only expected to grow.
In 2010, about 1.9 million people around the world used email. But, according to an April 2010 study by Radicati Group, Inc., the number of global emailers is estimated to reach 2.5 billion by 2014.
For people trying to write reports, prepare presentation or complete other tasks that take creativity and strategic thinking, Cantor said, those billions of emails mean billions of interruptions that lead to lower quality work.
Multi-Tasking Can Lead to Lower Quality Work
"What the managers don't understand is that they are asking employees to lower their intelligence levels. They're asking them to dim their bulbs," she said. "When you're constantly being interrupted your brain is not operating at its full capacity."
Research shows that when people multi-task, they end up using lower levels of their brains to accomplish each task. They may be able to remember what they've learned at a rote level, but they're not consistently able to place the information into a meaningful context or generalize to a new situation, she said.
Early humans evolved to multi-task so that when a twig snapped, they could react to an approaching predator, she said.
"If we work in any environment where there's a lot of twig-snapping, we can't use the wonderful focus we have that makes us creative and able to think strategically," she warned.
Cantor emphasized that it's not all gloom and doom. With a few simple steps, she said even the most over-extended emailers can lower their stress levels.
First off, Cantor said, if your work environment allows it, don't check your email all the time. Adjust your settings so that email messages only come through once every 30 minutes or every hour.
She also suggested keeping your inbox to just 15 or 20 messages at a time. Sorting message into folders and using automatic filters can help prevent the massive shock that can come with seeing hundreds (or thousands) of unread emails at a time.
Patricia Wallace, a director of information technology at Johns Hopkins University and author of "Psychology of the Internet," said a key trick is prioritizing incoming mail.
"You don't want your first-class mail mixed in with a lot of magazines. Make sure your first class mail is the thing you pay attention to," she said.
She said she uses four separate email accounts to make sure important professional correspondence stays away from the news subscriptions, marketing promotions and other messages that pummel her. Others suggest color-coding emails so that you can immediately address the messages that need urgent attention.
Email Is Almost Free, Sparking Too Much Sharing
Most importantly, Wallace said, make sure you set a good example for the people around you by using email sparingly.
"The cost of email is almost nothing from the sender's point of view, but for the recipient, in terms of time and attention, it's high. Senders don't think about what it costs the recipient," she said. "Because the cost of sending is so cheap... we over-send, we over-inform people."