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What Sending After-Hours Emails Does To Your Productivity

Even if you aren’t working nights and weekends, the expectation of constant availability can cause you to burn out.

It’s 9 p.m. and you suddenly remember that you wanted to ask your employee about an upcoming project. Before you fire off an email, ask yourself, “Is this urgent?” If you’re sending the email simply because you don’t want to forget, your employee may not know your response expectations, and this can cause stress that negatively impacts your staff’s productivity and performance.

In a new report called “Exhausted But Unable to Disconnect,” professors from Lehigh University, Virginia Tech, and Colorado State University found that an “always on” culture may prevent employees from fully disengaging from work, causing stress.

“It’s easy to depersonalize people when you’re using email, because you don’t see the effect you’re having,” says coauthor William Becker, associate professor of management at Virginia Tech. “When boundaries are blurred, it can create all kinds of problems. A lot of companies see the good parts of using email, and don’t think beyond that.”


In the study, participants reported spending an average of eight hours a week doing company-related emails after hours. The greater the amount of time spent on after-hours work, the less successful the employees were at detaching from work. This translated into poorer work-family balance, and even contributed to emotional exhaustion, which Becker says has been shown by prior research to negatively affect job performance.

“What we saw over time was that it’s the expectation that makes you exhausted,” says Becker. “It wasn’t about the time spent on email; it was assumed availability. Having an anticipation of work created a constant stressor.”


The authors of the study, which is being presented at the upcoming annual meeting of the Academy of Management, call on leaders to create formal practices that establish expectations that can mitigate the negative effects of an always-on culture. Some companies instill a strict ban on after-hours emails, while others simply state that emails after hours don’t have to be returned until work hours the next day.

“Having a policy means the employee doesn’t have to interpret the expectation on their own,” says Becker. “It goes a long way toward setting what is okay, and relieves the employee of the feeling that they have to always be available. It also serves as a signal of organizational caring and support.”

If your company doesn’t have a policy, managers can help employees know expectations by creating their own departmental policy or at the least by being clear in the subject line or beginning of the email message.

“You can say, ‘I don’t want you to work on this now, but please do this tomorrow,’” says Becker. “It could go a long way. Maybe your company doesn’t need a policy, but you should always be thinking about the impact of sending an email at 10 p.m.”

Becker says that some companies have already realized that after-hours emails hurt a company’s bottom line. For example, management consultants Boston Consulting Group guarantees one email-free evening a week, while health care consultancy Vynamic prohibits correspondence after 10 p.m. and on weekends.

“European firms have been ahead of those in the U.S. in this regard,” says Becker. In May, France passed a labor reform law that makes weekend emails illegal.

“All the studies show there is far more work-related stress today than there used to be, and that the stress is constant,” Benoit Hamon of the French National Assembly said in an interview with the BBC. “Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash—like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails—they colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.”

While France has taken a step in the right direction, there is still a long way to go on both sides of the Atlantic, says Becker. “Perhaps by revealing the damage these expectations can cause, our research will improve matters, as this is a problem that should be relatively amenable to solution,” he says.



3 Things Sabotaging Your Priorities


Maybe it’s your talkative coworker. Maybe it’s the project you were handed that never seems to end. Or, maybe it’s a family member that’s calling you off the hook. There’s always something sapping your attention and energy.

Here’s the scary thing about that: the people and projects that make the most noise and create the greatest pressure are not necessarily the most important. But they feel urgent, so we often give in just to relieve the pressure. The problem with that behavior is that it ultimately causes more pressure. Doing the less important things, because they are “louder” and demand attention, forfeits your ability to put your best time into the things that really matter. The result is that those bigger and more important things begin to crumble and even crash, causing much greater problems and pressures.

Philosopher William James said, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” In other words, the real genius is in knowing what not to do!

Are these three time-wasters destroying your productivity? If you are, then it might be time to do a little bit of recon on your priorities.


Saying yes to everything and everyone dilutes your effectiveness. Sure, you can keep everyone else’s boats afloat, but what about everything you need to do to accomplish your own objectives? Remember, the more you say yes, the more you’re saying no to other opportunities that could be zipping right by you.
Identify only the tasks and projects you can do, and save room in your schedule for those things. If you get a new request, keep in mind you can say, “Let me get back with you.” Then, consult your schedule and your list of priorities to determine if the request is on track with your other goals.


We all know the antagonistic tune, “Anything you can do, I can do better,” which often rings true when working with a team. If you always work in a vacuum, you’re preventing your good idea from becoming a great idea. You’re also keeping people out of a process who might know things you need to know, or are better at executing a particular skill than you are. Delegating and collaborating are key to protecting your time and making the most of your plans. Don’t hesitate to bring in trusted voices and efficient teammates to achieve your priorities and protect your time.


We all need a little break from the grind, but how much time are you spending on things you enjoy, things that are “fun” instead of ensuring your productivity. The major culprits for you might be social media, apps on your phone, or chatting with coworkers. Don’t totally abandon your Instagram or your weekly conversations with your office mate, just re-evaluate what it’s adding to your life and how it contributes to your priorities. Limit distractions without destroying your morale. Just remember, that it pays to be productive sooner and save playtime for later.

So, how can you cure yourself of wasting time and getting off track?

A great way to accomplish this is to practice something first coined by the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, called the “Pareto Principle.”

The idea is this: by focusing your attention on the top 20% of all your priorities, you get an 80% return on your effort. You can’t do everything, but if you do the most important things first, you will gain your greatest results. It’s amazing how many of the less important things don’t need to be done.

People often ask, “How is this possible when the people around me require so many things of me?” You will gain momentum from being consistently successful in the big things that really matter. This will gain you more and more latitude in the things that are less important.

John Maxwell


Should you multitask?

Quit the Percentage Game: Make Focus Your Focus


“Anne, I want you to spend 40% of your time on Project Narwhal, 40% on Project Jackelope, and the remaining 20% of your time on everything else,” said Bob, the new IT manager. This type of directive isn’t confined to Bob and his personal style of management. The percentage game is played in millions of teams, in countless companies across the globe.

On the surface, everyone understands the rules of this percentage game. It seems so easy: Just do a few hours on this, then a few hours on that and cap it off with the rest. But, there are some major problems with this approach. Usually, we don’t see them — so we sprint ahead, leaving a trail of unrealized opportunity behind.

Is Focus a Luxury?

The first, and simplest, problem is our simplification of the “everything else.” My subjective observations in large companies (where tracking time is a common activity) taught me that 15% of your time — at minimum — is spent on overhead activities such as emails, general meetings and collaboration, and administrivia such as time tracking or status reporting.

For poor Anne from our example, that leaves 5% for existing and recurring maintenance responsibilities, disruptive unplanned work and anything else that comes up. You don’t have to be a mathematician to realize that this equation doesn’t add up.

The larger problem, by a wide margin, is how much revenue — and employee sanity — we forfeit due to the way we manage work. Sadly, most companies don’t know about, or aren’t doing, the things that could stem the tide of these critical losses.

Even brand new managers aren’t naive enough to think that splitting a person’s time into percentages is ideal. But often, they feel that it’s their only choice. They’ve climbed the corporate ladder in environments that taught them that work is inherently chaotic, and that focus is a luxury most organizations can’t afford. So, many managers don’t stop to consider the possibility of letting people focus on a single category of work, be it a single application or project or merely focusing on maintenance or unplanned work of a team.

The underlying fear is that, if we don’t start all of our commitments, we might not finish them on time. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to understand that starting everything is the very thing that gets in the way of finishing anything.

The Myth of Multitasking

Many people take pride in their ability to multitask. This is excellent for some activities, like listening to a podcast while folding laundry. In this situation, your brain only needs to actively concentrate on one activity.

In knowledge work, multitasking is a fallacy. We rapidly switch between brain-intensive activities which hinders our ability to productively focus on anything. How many times have you checked e-mail during a meeting and then realized you didn’t hear what was said? Whatever the reason for the context switch, the cost of the time lost transitioning between tasks is usually far greater than we realize — not to mention the reduced quality of our efforts due to distraction.

Multitasking Math

Let’s do a quick calculation to visualize the time cost with a scenario of five interruptions a day, with a loss of 10 minutes of work time per interruption (five minutes to ramp down and and five to ramp back up):

5 interruptions x 10 minutes = 50 minutes of lost work time [per person/per day]

You might be thinking, that’s under an hour, that’s just the cost of doing business. While you’re right that some interruptions may be worth the cost, let’s look how this cost adds up across a team of eight:

50 minutes x 5 days per week = just over ½ of a work day lost [per person/per week]

8 people x ½ day per week = 4 working days lost [per team/per week]

Just think: What could you do with another person on your team for four days a week?

When this realization kicks in, teams start to consider policies and procedures they can put in place to limit interruptions or, at least, group them together to reduce the ramp up/ramp down time. We’re not just talking fly-by’s (which were discussed in Brandon Hedge’s excellent post, Do You Have Five Minutes?). We’re also talking about emergencies, mid-stream priority changes and scattered meetings.

The Lesser-Known Cost of Context Switching

The truth is that things like “meeting mornings” or scheduled office hours are processes we put in place to deal with the excessive work-in-process (WIP) levels of the larger organization. These systems would not be necessary if organizations made an intentional effort to increase their focus on a limited set of priorities, with an understanding of how that achieves greater speed and flow.

A huge contributor to the underlying problem is that most organizations plan how much can go into their portfolio by looking at capacity and effort estimates. Unfortunately, the world of knowledge work is not that simple.

On paper, you might estimate that a project will take three months for four specific people to complete. As you continue to estimate more projects and add them to the Gantt chart, you end up playing an intricate game of Tetris to align the right people for the estimated duration of the work.

The massive elephant in the room is that we aren’t just stamping out the same widget over and over. There will be obstacles that can’t be discovered until we begin the work. Because estimates can’t account for these unknown obstacles, they are regularly wrong.

In addition, we fail to account for the times that we consult with, or seek help from, others to finish our tasks. So, not only do projects take more time than estimated, we also involve more people. The problem is that our Gantt chart tends to be like a house of cards. When you throw one wrench into the works, it creates a complicated web of conflicting priorities, deadlines, and constant interruptions: In a word, chaos.

Some organizational complexity is unavoidable, but it can be well-regulated by embracing focus as a pillar of success. You know you’re on the right track if you have:

  • A clear, but limited set of key priorities at any given time
  • An environment that fosters focus (on stated priorities)
  • Tools to visualize and collaborate on work.

These things allow teams and individuals to manage the complexity of the organization to keep it within accepted levels.

The Most Realistic Estimates Aren’t Estimates: Managing WIP and Accounting for Dark Matter

As a manager of development teams in the past, I observed that my team, on a PMO capacity planning chart, might show that it could accommodate up to four projects for our eight person team. But experience showed that, despite the numbers, the chances of project failure increased significantly when we worked, collectively, on more than two projects at a time.

Choosing to manage the reality of our work rather than stubbornly stick to the numbers, we limited our project availability to two at a time and saw our success rates skyrocket.

When I thought about the discrepancy between the capacity plan and reality, I had an epiphany: The effort involved in completing a project is more than the sum of the lines on a project plan. There’s an unforeseen dark matter that is hard to quantify, and difficult to predict, in an estimate. It’s comprised of tasks you didn’t know you’d need to do and people that you didn’t know you’d need — not just to do the unknown tasks, but to provide perspective, feedback and assistance.

Overcommitting teams doesn’t allow for handling of this dark matter and creates a system that causes the chain reaction of interruptions most companies deal with today. That simple equation, calculated across multiple teams, can equal huge amounts of unrealized value. For small companies, it can be a death knell. For larger companies, it may explain why things get harder and harder to finish as a company gets bigger. We get in our own way.

Quit the Percentage Game

The situation may seem dire, but it can be turned around by getting your team to focus on getting focused. If you’re lucky enough to control what your team works on then set, adhere to and refine team WIP limits. Teach the importance of focusing on moving work to “Done,” rather than starting new work. Agree upon what conditions make it appropriate to divert from that focus. Finally, learn about alternatives to task-based estimation, like predictive modeling. These policies and behaviors will force difficult, but necessary, discussions on prioritization.

If you can’t control how much work comes down the pipe, use the calculation above to measure the cost of excessive WIP. Then, present the surprising numbers to your leadership team. Fortunately, most executives can be swayed by evidence on the impact unmanaged WIP has on the bottom line. Once people agree that there’s a problem, steps can be taken to combat it.

The Kanban Method, especially at the portfolio level, teaches us the practice of systems thinking — it forces us to start paying attention to how work flows through the entire organization. It teaches concepts that help transform a stressed, chaotic assembly of teams into an aligned, effective value delivery system. Try the activities in our Kanban Roadmap with your team to get started on a path toward becoming a healthy, focused organization.


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