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Is Email Sinking the U.S. Economy?


A Productive Mystery

Reading the Washington Post this weekend, Robert Samuelson’s column caught my attention. It was titled, “Solving the productivity mystery,” and it focused on a trend that both concerns and puzzles economists: productivity has stopped growing.

This statement requires some unpacking.

In economics, productivity, roughly defined, measures the ratio of output to inputs. The more valuable output you can produce for the same input costs, the better your productivity.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics expends a lot of effort to carefully measure this metric over many different industries in our country as it tends to be a strong indicator of practical things that people care about, like wage increases.

Back to the Samuelson column…

  • From 1995 to 2005, labor productivity increased by an average of 2.5% a year. As Samuelson pointed out, this translates to wage increases of roughly 25% over that period. This is good.
  • From 2010 to 2015, however, the average increase has only been 0.3% a year. If this persists through 2020, it will translate to a “puny” 3% wage increase over the decade. This is not good.

The puzzle, as mentioned above, is understanding why productivity is slowing.

There are no shortage of hypotheses. Samuelson reviews several in his column, including Robert Gordon’s claim that serious innovation is fading (c.f., Gordon’s big deal new book), and Samuelson’s own theory concerning the inefficiency of duplicating sales efforts online and in physical stores.

An Intriguing Angle

I’m not an economist, so it’s with trepidation that I throw one more potential contributing factor into the mix: email.

Hear me out.

The period between 2010 to 2015 is when smartphone use transitioned from popular to ubiquitous (I bought my first smartphone in 2012), and with this transition new expectations about constant connectivity migrated from the social sphere to the workplace.

Not surprisingly, many in the knowledge sector (and beyond) talk about the last five years as a tipping point where their annoyance with their various inboxes metastasized to deep, soul crushing resentment.

With this rise of constant connectivity — as I’ve documented in detail — a drop in cognitive ability is absolutely unavoidable.

This would be okay if our ability to think clearly and efficiently didn’t matter for the bottom line. But it does!

The main capital expenditure in the powerful knowledge sector of our economy is human brains: by reducing their ability to effectively produce valuable output, wouldn’t we expect a slow down in labor productivity?

(It’s here that many connectivity apologists began to talk about the soft opportunities and advantages of increased information and connection. But labor metrics are harsh. An active presence on social media or rapid email response times often do not measurably lead to more production of unambiguously rare and valuable output.)

Some modest support for this thesis shows up if you look hard enough (and embrace sufficient selection bias):

  •  The March productivity numbers, for example, show that the “business” category (which includes knowledge work) has a notably smaller increase in productivity than the various manufacturing industries measured.
  • Tier one knowledge companies like Google are increasingly having to rely on “sprints,” in which a development team drops off the grid, and works night and day to hit a self-imposed deadline. I suspect — though can’t claim with confidence — that these sprints became necessary because without permission to disconnect from the message whirlwind, the average developer is too riddled with distraction to produce good code anywhere near cognitive capacity.

I don’t want to fall into an econometric rabbit hole here, so let’s treat Samuelson’s column mainly as a prompt to return to a pertinent issue: Just because constant connectivity has become the standard approach to work doesn’t mean that it’s good.

The time has come, in other words, to step back from this inbox-driven world we’ve created and ask with clarity and humility: does this make any sense?

27 thoughts on “Is Email Sinking the U.S. Economy?”

  1. Please don’t ask me to “hear you out.” I’m already reading, have confidence in your reader that we’re with you. Frankly, as soon as you tell me to hear you out, I feel like packing up and leaving.

  2. as a software developer, I can attest to the truth of needing to unplug to produce “code anywhere near cognitive capacity.” I really like that phrase: “anywhere near cognitive capacity.” Because, of course, it *is* possible to produce work while being interrupted continually, but it won’t be good work.

    i’ve recently been on a personal campaign to reorganize how i use email, and when/where i check my email. your blog was extremely timely and supportive! and to add even more fun and usefulness to the topic, the following showed up in my RSS feed on the same day:

    many of the “email guidelines” that i had recently devised and imposed on myself are described in that greatergood link. highly recommended!

  3. Are you convinced it’s email usage on smartphones and not just smart phones themselves? I was sitting beside a developer recently who received >3 push notifications from his phone, each with different tones indicating it was from different services. Email feels like just a subset of the connectivity problem.

  4. I would say it is much broader than email and includes the internet in general. The amount of time that employees spend on the internet when they should be working is staggering. Speaking of which, I need to get back to work!

  5. One thing I’ve found helpful taming my email recently is creating a filter that marks all email, as it comes in, as read. I don’t get that jolt of dopamine associated with a new, brightly colored message when I check my work email a couple times a day and the messages don’t seem to demand the same kind of attention.

    Addicting interfaces is a major problem. If we’re all getting addicted to getting brightly colored blobs of novel information at regular intervals, maybe we need to rethink how these interfaces are designed and opt out of ones that demand more cognitive resources than they’re worth.

  6. For the last few years I’ve been doing consulting/project work and have seen the insides of a number of companies. The amount of time wasted with email/Internet is nothing short of disturbing. And when “addicts” are allowed to self medicate during meetings, there really is little hope of getting anything meaningful accomplished.

    The MBA program I attended completely outlawed technology in the classroom. No computers, phones, etc., open during class. I thought when I started the program that was a little paternalistic and counterproductive but have since come to see the wisdom of the policy.

  7. Interesting. I acquire most of my business via e-mail. My phone message directs callers to this preference. For me, I can’t be distracted and diverted throughout the day on cell phone–in addition to the radiation disturbing me.

    So my business connects to people on e-mail in the evening. As a result I can correspond in a relaxed and focused way.

  8. So I’m not an economist yet (I still need to apply to PhDs), but I did major in it and I do work as a research assistant for an economist, so I know some stuff. It’s hard for me to buy the argument that email is an important contributor to low productivity. As far as I understand low productivity is currently a global phenomenon among developed countries, and there other strong economic forces at play. We only recently got out of the slow recovery phase after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. It is also very likely secular stagnation is at play since other developed countries are experiencing the same phenomenon. Also it’s important to look at what the business sector is actually composed of. I’m sure a big chunk of it is white collar jobs that would use email regularly, but it would also include small businesses like restaurants and the medical profession (I’m not sure how important email is to doctors, but I would think they use it less than regular office jobs).

    I do think email and similar distractions (such as smart phones) are an important component as to why we didn’t see the large productivity gains expected with the information technology revolution. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it is negatively contributing to workers’ satisfaction with their jobs and even within their lives. Unfortunately, GDP and productivity figures don’t capture that.

  9. I agree with this, but also believe it’s due to falling employee engagement. Gallup’s ( research and articles on employee engagement are fascinating and point to the negative impact on individual well-being, the economy, and society.

  10. Hello, I’m an agile methodology evangelist in Brazil and, yes, focus on the sprint objective is extremely important for the team productivity. But not only for the development team.

    The Product Owner (who defines which functionalities will be built in the sprint), also has to focus on the requirements that deliver value faster (and hence, has to decide what won’t be built now).

    One important note is that agile methodologies doesn’t incentive to work day and night. It’s the opposite: the balance between work time and free time is fundamental.

    Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and knowledge.


  11. Personal experience: yes, I cannot concentrate on valuable work due to constant e-mails and interruptions when I am in the office.
    Some people just have to go without an answer from me for a while so that I can get some things done.

  12. Is it also possible that ’95-’05 was email’s heyday, when more work and sales were done via email? And that the advent of social media (myspace in 2003) led people to begin interacting in less productive ways overall with tech (at work).. and also in general. agree w your thesis, but there could be more complexity to it. Appreciate econ info too… looked at Gordon’s book and will read the Samuelson article.

  13. I agree and would add to your diagnosis.

    Most people teach themselves how to manage emails at a time in their lives when the volume of email they face is low. Unfortunately, these habits usually don’t scale well.

    More email usually equates to more time demands, which requires more capacity by the individual I.e. new habits, practices and rituals. Generally, these behaviors involve more than email.

    However, this need is hidden from everyday understanding. We buy a better gadget, an email program with a prettier interface or add data plans to our iPhones thinking that one of these tactics should make a difference.

    They don’t so we struggle, blaming the job or other people. Our productivity falls.

    So yes, the problem is email but it’s not only 24 hr connectivity, email volume or information overload. They all play a part… but it’s the interaction with our unchanging behaviors that generates a kind of creeping incompetence we can’t shake.

    My 2 cents.

  14. I liked your process-oriented email tips offered in Deep Work. I have been working on making email much more condensed and muscular by thinking through the steps and glide path for each process well in advance, even if there are several variables.

  15. I work in a clinic. The VOIP provider provides an email based on every phone call, even those that are answered. In our environment, this is totally unnecessary and takes up email space. When someone came over to fix something in the system, he offered to set it up so I could get calls and email at home. I asked him if he was crazy and saw what my job was–a low level front desk person with NO need for this and would probably quit if it were required. Our environment bans use of personal cells at work, yet expects us to have it constantly on in case there is a clinic need and they need to call us. Please don’t get me started on the mess that is Electronic Health Records and patient portals. Providers will lose $$ if they don’t have certain targets met, which means quick, sloppy work. More ways for hackers to get our information!


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