David Sluter
By David Sluter on September 21, 2016

The Tyranny of the Inbox

I was watching the CBS news program Face the Nation on a recent Sunday morning when I heard the phrase “The Tyranny of the Inbox.”  The speaker used the phrase in the context of a discussion about hasty, ill-considered foreign policy communications that were driven by a need to respond to public opinion, the press or criticism from political opponents.  The phrase hit home for me and I immediately thought about its origin and impact on our personal and business lives.  The emails and texts in our inboxes and cell phones are tyrannical in the way they demand our time and attention.  We respond to them with varying urgency depending on our perceived priorities.  Most of us allow them to constantly interrupt our attention to the task at hand.  This is the “Tyranny of the Inbox.” 

We invite this interruption by turning on our email and text sound notifications on our cell phones and computers.  We are multiple generations of multi-taskers and over-committed in our roles as friends, relatives, parents, workers and leaders.  Much of our communication is through email, texts and social media.  Face-to-face communication isn’t a priority for many.  In many ways, these forms of communication make our personal lives simpler, easier to manage and more satisfying and productive.

In our business roles, the “Tyranny of the Inbox” has a significant negative impact on our productivity and job performance.  Instead of focusing on the important task at hand, we allow the urgency of unimportant emails and texts to become a priority.  The productivity and quality of our work suffers.  Even more importantly, this repeated emphasis on urgency over importance impacts our ability to plan and execute longer-term strategic initiatives.  When discussing this issue, I often illustrate this impact by using the figure below, adapted from Steven Covey's "7 Habits of Highly Effective People. You can see a summary of this work here.  The four quadrants on the chart can represent how we prioritize and invest time to accomplish tasks during our work day.

NEC_Blog_Urgency_Importance_Graph.jpgThe vertical axis is a measurement of the relative importance of the tasks we need to accomplish in any given time period.  The horizontal axis is the relative urgency of those tasks.  The four quadrants shown can illustrate the relative urgency and importance we assign to our tasks and how we spend our time.  For example, if you plotted a task that is very urgent but relatively unimportant, you would place an X in the lower right quadrant signifying that particular task.  If the task was low in urgency and low in importance it would be plotted in the lower left quadrant; a task urgent and important would plot in the high right quadrant; and a task that is important but less urgent in the high left quadrant. When we think about how we spend our time completing tasks, it is obvious that we need to prioritize those tasks that are both important and urgent – things like responding to a customer with a serious issue that needs to be resolved right away.  These kinds of tasks that would be plotted in the high-right quadrant.  The negative impact on productivity and ability to complete longer-term strategic tasks happens when we spend too much time on tasks that lie in the low right quadrant - low importance and high urgency.  These tasks should not be a high priority but we often make them one.  The tasks involved in strategic planning and implementation of strategic initiatives typically are very high in importance, but low in urgency because they don’t demand our immediate attention.   In order to complete those important tasks, we need to plan our work by allocating blocks of uninterrupted time in our calendars and making them a priority.  Often strategic initiatives take more time or are not implemented because we spend too much time in the low left quadrant doing tasks that are low in importance but are given a priority – getting stuff done makes us feel good.  In an organization familiar with this concept, we can talk about operating in high left and the team knows this means working on highly important tasks that have a longer time line and therefore a lower urgency.

Time is our most important asset - once spent, it is gone.  The “Tyranny of the Inbox” robs us of precious time when we fail to manage the inbox and let it become a priority.  I try to manage my inbox, texts and cell phone calls by turning off the notifications and prioritizing uninterrupted blocks of time that I am not tempted to respond and I can maintain a high level of productivity.  Finding a balance between being responsive and the need to be productive is difficult.  We need to be vigilant and to actively manage the daily assessment of the urgency and importance of the work we choose to do.

If you found this piece informative, check out our past Business Tip blogs here.

Published by David Sluter September 21, 2016
David Sluter