Those little email alerts passing across your screen that you think are helping you be a dutiful employee and stay on top of your inbox are actually costing you - and your company - time and productivity. 

This study from Microsoft shows just how much time people lose when they are interrupted by email and instant-message alerts, two of the more commonly employed office multitasking tools.

Highlights

The company collected 2,267 hours of activity data by using tracking software on 27 people at Microsoft, whose job descriptions ranged from
program manager, administrator, and researcher to software developer. 

Microsoft focused on studying the behaviors of users in response to alerts generated by Outlook, and IM clients, including Windows Messenger, MSN Messenger, and Office Communicator. 

What the company found was that the employees spent an average of nearly 10 minutes switching to email or instant messenger after receiving an alert. 

Additionally, they spent another 10 to 15 minutes on other diversions — responding to other emails, opening up new webpages, and the like — before getting back to the task they had been working on prior to receiving the alert. 

This means that in total, workers stopped what they were doing for an average of 20 to 25 minutes every time they responded to an instant message or email alert.

On occasion, the disruptions took even longer. Microsoft reports that 27% of the time one of the employees received an alert, they did not get back to the original task for more than two hours, instead choosing to move on to other work.

They say resumption of the previous work means "reacquiring memories" about what they were doing, and "refocusing cognitive resources" that were taken away from that task and redirected. 

Employee Reactions

When Microsoft interviewed the employees following the study, they discovered that the users spend more time than they realize responding to alerts, and that even though they felt in control when they switched tasks due to an alert, they appear to be largely unaware of the amount of time they end up spending on the alerting application.

Even when users respond immediately with the intention of resuming the suspended current task as soon as possible, they often end up taking significantly more time to return than the time to respond. 

Now add to this productivity loss estimation that the average worker receives 100 to 200 emails per day, meaning even if you only spent one minute addressing email, you would spend 2-3 hours every day on email alone.

Tips For Managing Your Inbox

There are lots of tools and strategies available for better managing your inbox, and not becoming a slave to it. We won't go into those in detail, but here are a couple of takeaways that might help minimize the productivity loss. 

Schedule "email" times – Making specific times to check and respond to emails. Of course that doesn't work if you have staffing clients who have something that needs immediate attention, as they always do. But this could help in theory. 

Check and respond to email at "low productivity" times – There are certain times of day when you likely do your best work. Scheduling regular email check-in during your less-productive times could save you for doing your more creative, high-value work. 

Turn emails into actions – If an email will take more than a few minutes to action or respond to, add it as a new action on your To-Do List or Action Program.

And if you dare, keep your email program closed – Some experts suggest that when you're not using your email program, close it entirely – or at least turn off the visual or audible alerts that distract you. This eliminates the temptation to check it constantly.