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Sep 5 2008

Email Productivity Experiment – Update 1

Over the past few days I have been using my trusty Moleskine to record the number of times I have checked email. I did not change anything about the way I worked, I just checked mail as normal using the default settings on my laptop. I was out a few days and in the office a few days so I evened out my results in order to get a view from a pretty average day.

What I found was quite shocking! I checked email 84 times in an average day. This was split into 62 times during my working day and 22 times outside of work, whilst at home.

I use a Mac, and as my email client. My laptop is hardly ever turned off. It sits on the desk in the office all day, and when I get home it sits on my desk in my study which is a dedicated work room on the ground floor of my house. I have the default setting to check for new email every 5 minutes.

With the default setting to check email every five minutes, that means that my machine checks for email 12 times per hour. I start work at 0800 and leave the office at 1730 so that is 9.5 hours in the office. This equates to my Mac checking for new email 114 times during my normal working day. Out of this 114 times, I checked my mail 62 times. The other 52 times I did not get email. I do not manually check email, but I tend to switch straight to when a new email arrives to read it.

When my machine is in my study at home, I normally have the sound on so that I can hear the new email notification. I don’t jump when I hear the notification but I do log it mentally and then go to my study to check my mail when I pass the room etc..

Lets treat the during office ours and away from office ours as two separate entities. During office hours you would like to think that I am working on something, normally related to a previously collected task or project so these email notifications are an interruption. At home, I should be relaxing with the family, learning by reading, or as most of the time working, but in a more relaxed environment.

Each time I am interrupted and check email I am going to allocate a 90 second penalty. This penalty is against the break in my focus and the time it takes me to regain the flow on the task that I was performing. So, during the working day I have 62 such interruptions. 62 * 90 Seconds equates to 5580 seconds, or 93 minutes. Just over one and a half hours out of my nine and a half hours of productive working time (not counting lunch). Maybe 90 seconds penalty is a bit high, maybe it is too low. Would love to hear your thoughts about it.

The bottom line, and the basis for my next post on this fascinating subject is that I am losing roughly 15.8% of my productive time due to email interruptions.

  • 12 Comments... What do you think?
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  1. Kevin Riggins said on September 5th, 2008 at 2:11 pm


    Based on most the reading I have done, 90 seconds is a very low estimate for impact on productivity due to interruptions, particularly if the task at hand requires significant concentration. I have seen time frames as high and 10-15 minutes for engineering/programming type tasks and as high as 5-10 minutes for tasks such as report writing. I don’t have references available, but from personal experience, it always takes me several minutes to really get back in the zone once I am interrupted.


  2. Andrew Mason said on September 5th, 2008 at 2:23 pm

    @Kevin Riggins,

    Hi Kevin,

    I too think 90 seconds is low. Problem is, checking email every 5 minutes if it was much higher I would never get anything done :)

    BTW, just checked out your blog. I too am an InfoSec guy and plan to visit Defcon next year for the first time!

  3. John B. Kendrick said on September 6th, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    I’d hate to see my email check rate, as I almost always have my email with me on my iPhone, work mail and calendar events are forwarded through our PDA server. Though I don’t often respond right away (your mental checkin is a good analogy) This actually keeps me away from the computer where I would more than likely spend time reading/answering as much as I would otherwise spend. I’ve written about man of my experiences with the iPhone and GTD at

  4. Jared Goralnick said on September 8th, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    I agree with the others here, 90 seconds seems a bit low. As experiment number 2 I’d be curious if you’d find that life would go on as normal if you turned off all your notifications.

    Turning off notifications was my first crucial step to email sanity.

  5. Katy said on September 8th, 2008 at 5:52 pm

    Just out of interest, have you installed Growl for which pops up the notifications on screen or do you rely on the dock icon/physically switch to

    I ask as I find I check mail less if I can quickly see who it’s from and the subject – I know I can afely ignore some emails for a couple of hours.

  6. Andrew Mason said on September 8th, 2008 at 7:08 pm


    I love Growl and use it for most things apart from I turned it off as the notifications were distracting as I get tons of email. I rely on the Dock icon and the nice sound it plays when a mail arrives.

    More to follow :)

  7. Witold Rugowski said on September 10th, 2008 at 10:56 am

    One thing I have learned regarding productivity and email is to turn that damn mail client down, when I do not write mail.

    I try to check mail with some longer breaks, however when I left my Thunderbird open… I do also compulsively check for mail :)

    Ideally I would like to check for mail 4-5 times a day.

    From other things – I now tend to turn computer off when I’m not working. It is too much tempting to just check emails

  8. Rod Fitzsimmons Frey said on September 11th, 2008 at 11:51 pm

    According to Thomas Jackson at Loughborough University the average email interruption is 64 seconds: . But I totally agree it depends on what you’re doing: if you’re programming something of even moderate complexity, it can be like a big card castle in your brain comes tumbling down and needs to be built up again.

    For me, a big part of the problem is email triage — that is, I don’t know what the email is about and I’m just plain curious. Good use of email routing can help that a lot by putting newly arrived emails in various topic folders. I find that when I can glance at my email client and see that three new emails went into listserv folders and two more into a jokes folder, I can get back to work without much problem.

  9. Andrew Mason said on September 12th, 2008 at 12:58 pm


    Thanks for the link, good read. Even at 64 seconds, checking email as much as I have been doing represents a problem..

  10. [...] This is the third post in my mini series about email productivity. For those of you who missed the first two I have provided links to them below. Email Productivity Experiment Email Productivity Experiment – Update 1 [...]

  11. [...] you who missed the first three I have provided links to them below. Email Productivity Experiment Email Productivity Experiment – Update 1 Email Productivity Experiment – Update [...]

  12. [...] you who missed the first four I have provided links to them below. Email Productivity Experiment Email Productivity Experiment – Update 1 Email Productivity Experiment – Update 2 Email Productivity Experiment – Update [...]

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