Your leg is starting to grow numb. Your fingers hurt. If you had a greenish, ghoulish color and could growl like the walking dead, you'd fit right in on the AMC show.

That's right: We are all spending way too much time on email.

Why are we doing this to ourselves?

Fortunately, there is an answer.

I talked to Nathan Zeldes, a consultant and speaker, who says we spend 20 hours per week on email, but we spend a third of that time on unnecessary and pointless email. We are weeding out the fluff, archiving and labelling our mail, and trying to rise above the digital cacophony. But, mostly, we are typing, typing, typing when we should be communicating. We sometimes send an email with one word (e.g., "cool" or "great"). It's almost like we are trying to fulfill a quota or impress people with our missives. Why is that?

Zeldes makes a great point. We tend to use email like it is an instant messaging system. Yet, the great benefit of email-sending the message and then waiting for the reply that comes at a time when the person on the other end has time-has been lost. We're furiously emailing each other but not really using the tool in the way it was intended.

I really wanted to find out more, so I asked about how to solve this problem. As you can see below, it will require a major change in culture and attitude.

How is spending 20 hours per week "doing email" destroying productivity?

Think of it this way: Back in the days before email, people still communicated. They used paper memos inside reusable inter-office manila envelopes. But they dedicated 2 hours a week to this task, which they called correspondence. The rest of the week, they worked.

Now, admittedly part of work today is inside email, but not 20 hours' worth. Many surveys I had administered showed that a third of all email messages in the workplace are totally unnecessary. Of the rest, many are ill-written, sent to the wrong recipients, and hard to understand, resulting in even more clarification emails. Problems that a 60 second phone call could resolve are dragged for days in email threads. There is a direct productivity hit right there.

In addition, the stress of running a hopeless rat race to clean one's Inbox (compounded by the endless interruptions to focused thinking that this causes) has severe impacts on people's health, well-being and mental acuity-they make more errors, are less creative, neglect important organizational duties and processes (as in meetings where nobody listens, with their eyes on their inbox). There is ample research documenting such effects.

What's a better approach?

Info Overload is a very complex problem, because the fault is not in the technology, it's in the organizational culture-the norms and mutual expectations that encourage counter-productive behaviors. There is often mistrust that causes people to send too many messages in order to get noticed by their management; there are misperceptions and fears that make them respond to every message instantly, 24x7; there are processes that rely on email for covering your bases where more delegation would be better.

All this needs to be changed, but that requires companies to look deep into the murky undercurrents of the organization's culture, and many are loath to do that.

Is the simple answer to just call people?

Certainly there are cases where picking up the phone is the right thing-it all depends on the situation. In a global enterprise your coworker may be asleep at the other side of the Earth-in that case email, the ultimate asynchronous tool, is a fine choice. In other cases synchronous communication is appropriate, and the phone is one channel you can use for that.

A key skill is to know when synchrony is justified (remember, a phone call is an interruption for the recipient, which carries a cost to their productivity). A skilled communicator knows when to call and when to make do with slower but less intrusive means.

Are we addicted to email and how did this happen?

Many people certainly are addicted-endorphins in the brain and all. They keep checking the incoming mail in the hope that a jackpot-something interesting to them-will show up, just like a gambler keeps pulling the lever on a slot machine.

This happened when the technology evolved with its usual breakneck speed, and our culture and behavior failed to keep in step. Everything that could be done, like accessing anyone anywhere at anytime, was in fact done; no one stopped to ask whether that was a good idea, or what damage it would do to people's lives.

A key issue is that we took email-a wonderful killer app for asynchronous communication-and turned it into a synchronous tool like IM or SMS, that we feel obligated to respond to in real time.

What other advice do you have for companies who have employees wasting too much time on email?

First, admit that you have a serious problem that is costing you millions (in any sizable company) and making your employees miserable.

Second, realize that the problem is primarily cultural, and needs to be managed like a cultural problem-patiently, seriously, avoiding knee-jerk actions.

Then, define a serious change program to analyze your local manifestations of the problem, identify the best mix of solutions (including norm setting, training, and technology tools). Involve the employee base in this process from the beginning.

Lastly, be patient and persistent as you deploy the solutions--lead and role model the changes you define, and expect 6-12 months before you see the results.

Published on: Oct 29, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.