The Busyness Paradox

The Email Paradox: Inefficient Efficiency (Part 2)

March 18, 2021 Season 1 Episode 9
The Email Paradox: Inefficient Efficiency (Part 2)
The Busyness Paradox
More Info
The Busyness Paradox
The Email Paradox: Inefficient Efficiency (Part 2)
Mar 18, 2021 Season 1 Episode 9

Email is one of the most efficient forms of communication ever created. 

Email is almost universally viewed as a threat to efficiency, on and off the job. 

How can both of these statements be true? By being the most paradoxical paradox we've tackled yet, that's how!

In the first part of this two-part episode, we discussed the challenges associated with email overload and the annoying truth that becoming more efficient at something can simply increase the amount of that thing we're expected to squeeze into our days, if we're not careful. In Part 2, we dive into the troubling implications of email abundance for productivity, mental health and overall well-being.

Please rate and subscribe/follow our podcast. Join the Busybody family and share your ideas or workplace experiences with us. If you have a topic you would like for us to cover, email us at or tweet us @busynessparadox. 

Come visit us at to see episode transcripts, blog posts and other content while you’re there!

Show Notes Transcript

Email is one of the most efficient forms of communication ever created. 

Email is almost universally viewed as a threat to efficiency, on and off the job. 

How can both of these statements be true? By being the most paradoxical paradox we've tackled yet, that's how!

In the first part of this two-part episode, we discussed the challenges associated with email overload and the annoying truth that becoming more efficient at something can simply increase the amount of that thing we're expected to squeeze into our days, if we're not careful. In Part 2, we dive into the troubling implications of email abundance for productivity, mental health and overall well-being.

Please rate and subscribe/follow our podcast. Join the Busybody family and share your ideas or workplace experiences with us. If you have a topic you would like for us to cover, email us at or tweet us @busynessparadox. 

Come visit us at to see episode transcripts, blog posts and other content while you’re there!

Paul Harvey, Frank Butler

Frank Butler  00:00
Hello busybodies, welcome to another episode of the Busyness Paradox. I'm Frank Butler here with Paul Harvey. 

Paul Harvey  00:06
Good day, Frank. 

Frank Butler  00:07
And in this episode, we're actually picking up where we left off with our last episode, part one on email. Now, one of the things that we were ending on was this discussion of how people might have this need to feel busy, and how that might impact their mental health.

Paul Harvey  00:24
And that came up in this conversation because email is one of those things that keeps us busy, and keeps nagging us to do stuff. So I was saying that not email itself. but the larger problem that email can contribute to have constantly feeling like there's more to be done, like the to do list will never be reined in, unless we just keep cranking away. Because every email you receive is another potential addition to that to do list, whether or not it's actually something that benefits you, you have someone there expecting a response. Either that or it's spam, pick your poison, you know. But in any case, that's where we left off with me blaming email, and all that other stuff for at least some portion of the alcohol abuse and other unhealthy forms of escapism that we see stemming from the modern workplace.

Frank Butler  01:12
And with that, folks, let's get back to it. 

Frank Butler  01:19
Yeah, and it's not just alcoholism, other types of substance abuse, drugs, self-medication, right. Which brings me to a point where especially going through this pandemic, and seeing the impacts on others, I really do think that it's time that maybe we start considering getting annual mental health checks, like we do physicals.

Paul Harvey  01:40
That's an interesting idea. because like you said, we're masking what, in many cases is probably a mental health challenge. We're numbing ourselves against it, rather than addressing the problem, not saying that email is the cause of this all by itself. But again, it's a symptom of a larger issue, that I think you're right, it's got mental health impacts that we're really not paying enough attention to.

Frank Butler  02:04
I will say that I was never really understanding of people who'd say, oh, I've got anxiety, and I just, I would kind of brush it off. I've tried to be empathetic, but then, you know, after having gone through, like real anxiety that culminated in like a panic attack situation, you know, that's changed sort of my mindset a little bit, to the point where I'm like, you know, it probably isn't a bad idea to sort of have a physical for your brain as much as we get a physical for our body.

Paul Harvey  02:28
Yeah, I mean, I know a few guys (and they're all guys) who have had similar experiences with anxiety, where to see them from an outside perspective, they're fine one day, and then all of a sudden, they're having these massive panic attacks. And in some cases, I think it even comes as a surprise to the people having them, especially men, who are not always thinking too much about how we're feeling or how stressed are we, all that kind of thing. We're not talking about it right and not talking about it. So it builds up to the point where your central nervous system just starts misfire, and all over the place, permanent fight and flight mode, and all that stuff begins to happen. So hey, all right. I've not had to go through that myself. But I've seen it happen to enough people that I would certainly hope to avoid it. And if it annual checkup helps that happen, then yeah,

Frank Butler  03:16
I'm all in sort of tangentially or email me, but I think it's kind of still a mental health challenge, right? Like, I mean, I think email overload or just overload in general as a mental health challenge. Yeah, I think it's obviously much more psychological. When you start hitting those roadblocks of you know, I'm not answering these emails anymore, or I'm getting into the paralysis aspect of things like I just, I've hit paralysis, I don't know what to do anymore. I've got too much I got to do in that inbox is what's triggering, that

Paul Harvey  03:42
I was encouraged at one point to possibly consider counseling for my ongoing fear of email, my inability to actually open that inbox. I mean, it was terrifying to me to open that thing. Because I'm afraid of seeing, oh, my god, there's all these people are mad at me or something. I push back on that, because I was still recovering from my tick-borne illness at the time, but I thought it was a legitimate point, and that there is something psychological happening here that goes beyond a normal experience to just to literally be afraid of seeing that Little Apple Mail logo bouncing up and down. You know, that's not normal.

Frank Butler  04:19
You know, I think that probably could be part of the busyness problem, too, right? People have to feel like they're busy from a psychological perspective, because they feel like it's a coping mechanism, maybe. And these little things like banging out a few emails, and a few responses, like those little administrative tasks. They can be basic reinforcement theory, right? It feels good to accomplish something. And so you do these little things. It's a reward mechanism, right is you're seeking the bigger reward and seeking the bigger reward.

Paul Harvey  04:46
Plus, the irony is that you're not going for the big reward because you're doing all these little reward things that in our context, instead of working on the next big study, we want to publish we're banging out emails to students asking questions that they could have easily found answers to on their own.

Frank Butler  05:00
You know, this, this makes me think about that gambling situation, right? It's you do these little things, because maybe one of them pays off big. Yeah, right. I think that's the same thing, right? That's why people go get addicted to slot machines because they go and they put their money in. And you know, they're playing a quarter at a time or $1 $2, you know, and they might win $1.50 here or $10. Here, they lose $10, whatever, but they're going for that, you know, because they went the other day, 200 bucks, but they've already spent $500 get there, but that $200 felt amazing. It was like, right, yeah, it's that high. And I think that might be part of that, right? It might be part of that. I'm responding to these emails in you know, there's that, you know, intrinsic reward, hey, I'm getting it done. I'm checking things off, I'm getting accomplished. But you might be trying to seek that bigger payoff, because there might have been one email that sort of you sent in is like, Oh, you know, the reward that came with it was great. Right. Yeah. And sending off paper being done, right. So hear about how about that, you know, for us to be I finished my version of the revision. I've sent it back to my co-authors. That's kind of a big religious, yeah, that's kind of that's to me, almost like a closure mechanism where I send it to them. And I'm like, Oh, that's a reward. I feel accomplished. And the email has now become symbolic of that, not me saving the document and quitting it for the last time, but rather, getting it to my colleagues.

Paul Harvey  06:22
Yeah. In any case where responding to an email closes the loop on something, it's kind of satisfying, whether it's a big thing or a small thing. Yeah, yeah. And I do want to say, I'm not averse to email, the example you gave earlier about all those people who didn't speak English. Well, like that's a legitimate benefit of email as a communication medium. It does serve valuable purposes. But like anything else, if you overuse it causes people to go nuts,

Frank Butler  06:50
You know, I’m actually thinking about that, too, it should be not too difficult to identify the language of origin. So you know, you think about if I'm sending mail from here, my computer set up in American English, whereas if I'm in Germany, it's highly likely that my computer is either set up in German, you know, so my mail app would be in German, or at least my location data would say, I've been I'm in Germany, right? So it should be something that maybe even emails flagged based on geographic differences or language differences. Simply you can have the ability to flag an email as being from a foreign colleague,

Paul Harvey  07:21
Oh, yeah, you can do that.

Frank Butler  07:22
That might be something that would help say, okay, you know, I'm gonna prioritize some of these because I know that they're their language challenges. And I know those will be important, because they're emailing me for a reason, because of the time zone differences and all of that. I don't know, just kind of a technology thought,

Paul Harvey  07:37
Yeah, I love that stuff. As you're saying that I'm thinking about all right, yeah, that was like Keyboard Maestro, go with the Automator. You could do this. But, you know, again, I worry that is that the best use of your time, right? In your case there, maybe. But even then, it's if email wasn't so used and abused, you wouldn't have to prioritize those important emails, they would just be the emails that you have that need attention. So it's, even if it's not, even if my view of it contributing to the larger problem is a bit extreme, it's still an unfortunate result of the larger problem, right, that we have to do these creative things to filter the good out from the rubbish?

Frank Butler  08:18
Well, I'm wondering, you know, so one of the things I've thought about, and it's become something that's just kind of stuck in my mind a little bit, especially after reading that that article on Apple's management and how they sort of focus on an experts’ leading experts kind of thing. I feel like as you know, one of the things that you have to learn as you move up the ranks into management, and such as you're really becoming a project manager, in a sense, you know, and as you move up higher in the organization, you're now over managers, which means that you're probably responsible for multiple projects, which makes you more of a program manager, etc. And I think one of the things about being a project manager is this notion of being able to organize things. To an extent I don't, you know, it doesn't mean you have to be perfect, organized, or anything like that. But I wonder if maybe that's some developmental aspect of things that we should do creating some sort of programs to help master certain email things. Or maybe if you're it provides you a set up for your email based on the way you think you're going to handle that messaging after some amount of time. So your IT folks come to you and say, Okay, you've been using your email for a while, what do you think will help you and then they help you set up your email in a sense.

Paul Harvey  09:22
And that's no small thing. And this is an argument that I've heard before about creating automations for various aspects of your work life, that it kind of forces you to think logically about how you approach tasks, and what's the most efficient set of steps to achieve a task. And those can all be very valuable skills. So I do agree with that, that even something as simple as figuring out an email filtering scheme for your inbox, it's forcing you to do some fairly high level logical thinking that for some career paths more than others could pay off real big down the road. You know, having that ability to view things kind of like a programmer.

Frank Butler  10:01
Yeah, I think just in general that that ability to, you could at least leverage it as part of your development. I'm learning how to do better organization like, I know, I've gotten a lot more effective, especially once I started understanding smart mailboxes, for example, mail, that's made me better in a sense, because by creating those, I create my little projects. And so it's actually made it a little easier, because I know that I can go click on that, and find everything I need associated with that versus using folders, even, you know, and I think folders are really powerful, but it's almost like a post hoc kind of thing, or you have to create rules every single time. Whereas I can sit there and create one sort of general rule for the smart folders, and they just kind of do their thing. And it doesn't always get it right. But it's right enough.

Paul Harvey  10:45
You know, you need to get into Hazel, and if you're familiar with that, and some backup, it's a lot of what you're talking about, except not just email just files on your computer in general. But, But to your point, you know, those are skills that probably have analogues outside of dealing with email, you know, learning how to compartmentalize tasks like that is something you can use, you know, fixing your car or planning vacation. I don't know, it's a generalizable skill, it's not a bad thing to have.

Frank Butler  11:15
You know, fits under that purview of project management in general. And I think a lot of jobs really are projects, right, a lot of the things we do in organizations or projects in some form, in technically, you know, the definition of project has a defined beginning and end. But almost everything has a defined beginning and end that you're doing right. Yeah,

Paul Harvey  11:31
You die someday.

Frank Butler  11:33
Right. Exactly. [Laughs] Life is a process.

Paul Harvey  11:35
That's not what you meant, I'm sorry. [Laughs] 

Frank Butler  11:36
No, but it's, you know, it could theoretically apply, right? You, you, you set goals for yourself, and then you have deliverables along the way. I mean, it all sort of fits right, he fits in the strategic mindset in general of

Paul Harvey  11:47
Strategic mindset, that's a good way of putting it, 

Frank Butler  11:49
For example, I mean, I remember one of the things I'd set for myself is that, you know, by 40, I wanted to have all my student loans paid off and be relatively debt free, except for maybe the house and a car, you know, and for sure, you know, be able to pay off my credit cards regularly, that kind of stuff. And, you know, obviously, there was contingencies within General, my thought was, okay, the big stuff I wanted to paid off minus, like a house. I work toward that, right? Because you have to create thoughts of, Okay, I'm going to prioritize that as one of my goals, you know, we got to maybe think about it, how does it what emails are gonna be important to helping us achieve our goals and therefore maybe that's how we think about prioritizing what gets responded to or the way we answer things or what we do not do

Paul Harvey  12:27
Like the check engine light in your car, you're driving cross country, that check engine light serves a purpose, it can tell you some very important information, but if you spend the whole trip stopping every two miles to see why that check engine light came on, again, running diagnostics, you're not going to ever get to where you're going you're going to be very delayed. Yeah, that's the problem with email like can be crucial to a point and then beyond that point, it can become a distraction and I

Frank Butler  12:49
Here's one of the things that actually I've started to do a little bit more less so with regards to email but just more in general, I get a lot of notifications like my news app will notify me on my computer and you know website will do this or the stock markets as a you know, I get all these like different you know, stimulus or stimuli rather, that was actually the problem I had with my initial Apple Watches everything would trigger my initial Apple Watch and so I've since stripped that down to what I think were more important kind of things like I said, My wife's email addresses being a VIP address so that the app will notify me obviously texts will notify me but not all of them because I have some text actually on Do Not Disturb all the time. chats that can get blown up I have it word set up where like I get notified on my Apple Watch about very specific things right things that I should be looking at my watch about. But when I started to do on my computer's I started to turn on the Do Not Disturb more. And I'm starting to think about using my calendar more and saying hey, for this two hours of time, no responding to anything unless it's something like important and that you know, would still come through my Apple Watch, for example, not on my screen on my computer. Like if my wife needed something done texts would come through and I would look at that but otherwise, you know, remove all stimuli. So I could just focus in on writing for example, and I think that's something maybe organizations should encourage more to is saying hey, block off a part of your calendar every day that you don't respond to emails for actually I've done that more for example even with my students when I syllabus right I will say that I don't respond to emails after nine o'clock at night, I will not respond to them until at least the earliest is 8am in the morning. And typically I give myself about a two hour window when they do send so if I do have a two hour block, you know I could prioritize their emails first with the smart mailboxes okay students first in this context

Paul Harvey  14:32
It's pretty good system actually. And yeah, I'm stuck on automation now but you can automate that up pretty easy have your Do Not Disturb automatically turned on during those times and then sort out all the stuff you get the you know what things to respond to like that might steal that idea?

Frank Butler  14:44
Actually, it's funny because Do Not Disturb actually allows you to customize when it correct on now on your computer. With Big Sur. Obviously, folks were Mac people. So welcome those things, but really, you know, I think maybe it's time that even in the curriculum, somehow Maybe this is something that high schools, community colleges, universities need to consider some sort of, here's how you handle all these other stimuli. I'm sure there's plenty of research out there that shows that emails, like really bad for you at the end of the day, you know, in terms of getting things done. And so best practices,

Paul Harvey  15:16
We'll look into that, I think you're probably right.

Frank Butler  15:18
I would be, I bet there's something out there, you know, I/O psych lit, or ob literature?

Paul Harvey  15:23
If there's not, I think I'm gonna, I'm gonna do something to change that.

Frank Butler  15:27
Well, I think I think that would be a good plan for us wouldn't it.

Paul Harvey  15:30
That's a good idea.

Frank Butler  15:31
So I but just in general, I think there's probably something out there. And I'm sure we can find it. And if not, I think to your point, then it's time to do something about that. But we probably do need to have a class on how to life based on the technology, right? Because I mean, these days, you see, everybody's just burning their phone constantly walking around, right. And, you know, walking around, I'm not as concerned about, but when they're in class, they're on their phones or on Facebook Messenger, you know, they don't need to be right they, that's the time that if they're not using the computer or phone to take notes, or to record or whatever it is, then they probably don't need to be doing it, they need to be developed in that mindset, maybe that's one of those things that we need to focus more on is being able to better manage your time to get things done. And to be aware in the appropriate times of when you need to be aware,

Paul Harvey  16:19
It's a good way of looking at it, you know, just working applied logic into grade school curriculum could go a long way towards this. But you know, it's not just for Developmental, or kids. Yeah, I am guilty of a lot of the same things that we often blame the millennials or Gen Z's, or whatever you want to call them these days, like, Man, I'm pretty much buried in my phone all the damn time. And if I'm in a meeting laptop in front of me, like, I'm gonna be on Reddit, and like, it's just, it's gonna happen like I, I just don't have that ability. Sometimes.

Frank Butler  16:49
I think it depends on the meeting for me. It does. Yeah, yeah. Like right now, these kinds of things. Okay, I'm not in Reddit. And I'm checking my text messages, for example, because I know we're doing a live feed and making sure it's working well. But I don't have anything else up like my emails buried away, it's closed. So I really just have our window up and focusing on us. But at the same time, if it's a meeting I'm not interested in Yeah, I'm going to be distracted. Right.

Paul Harvey  17:15
But you know, to your point, being engaged like that, in the now is really an enjoyable thing. Like, we've talked about how we do these shows, and planning sessions, even when we're super bogged down with other stuff, because it's the most fun part of work for a given week, you kind of recharge a little bit by not being bogged down in 100. Other things, you're just focused on one thing, having a conversation with one person or multiple people, but about a specific thing that interests you. It's, you know, psychologically refreshing, I guess, so rejuvenating?

Frank Butler  17:47
Yeah, no, no, you know, it gets the wheels going, because we're talking about things that we wouldn't normally, but it's still very applicable to what we do. You know, I think we do address a lot of things that are interesting to us, and hopefully, to others, but it does get those juices going, right, because I feel like some of those things helped me then think about when I go into the classroom, and I'm conveying my strategic leadership week, for example, thinking about maybe emails gonna be more than that my mind at this point that say, Hey, you know, if you want to be a good strategic leader, you got to flush out the distractions and focus in on the people around you. And that then ties back into active listening. So to filter out the distractions, especially when you're dealing with others, you have to then engage in active listening skills. I think that's one of those benefits of I couldn't even imagine using a phone or getting on Facebook Messenger during one of our seminars in grad school, I think we would have been, oh, god kicked out of the program, like the next day, that would have been our last seminar. And I think that's sort of why because when we have these conversations in class, and we read these articles, like you start getting those wheels going, you're even if you kind of tune out for a little bit in class, because you're thinking about research ideas, because that's sort of what we're developed to do. You're still learning. 

Paul Harvey  18:52
Yeah, you know, even if you've tuned out for a little bit, you're still you're creating networks of things in your mind. Those come together in your subconscious mind. And these are things that I think rarely happen when you're communicating through email, or being distracted by email.

Frank Butler  19:06
Well, I think, you know, at least you and I texting wise, we've occasionally come up with some goal, just like texting back and forth. But I think to your point, it's not as fleshed out as it would be if we were just writing about it in a like this context here. I mean, right. Again, zoom is not necessarily always the best, but at the same time, it's better than a lot of alternatives. Right? I think

Paul Harvey  19:28
There's a time and a place for different mediums. And two people will talk like this through zoom, I think is really not hugely different than if we were in the same room together. But say there was five of us. And ordinarily, two of us would kind of have a side conversation about something that's not interesting to the other three, that kind of thing. We can't really have happened in zoom because you're all monitoring each other literally. All the time.

Frank Butler  19:51
No, I agree. I think certainly zoom is very good for these kinds of things like what you and I do and especially I think to with our research groups, right? I think It's better than a conference call. Because I can also share my screen, you know, like, I can get it up there. And I can share my screen and show sort of like maybe some output or

Paul Harvey  20:08
You know, I hadn't thought of that. That is the best thing about this pandemic is might not ever have conference calls again. Now ever knows how to use zoom. That was like the worst form of anything. Yeah. Yeah. Sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt. That was just No,

Frank Butler  20:21
no, I but you're right. You think about especially when you're like working on a project together with people? I don't you know, in our case, I'm saying research project. But it doesn't have to be a research analogy, right? It could have been any project, but being able for me to sit there and throw up like, either graph, or maybe table out and be like, hey, look at this table, this is really interesting. in there, we're all looking at the same thing. So we can all understand I don't have to spend maybe 30 minutes trying to write an email around that we can just talk it out and be done with it in five minutes. And I think everybody walks away with so much more from that.

Paul Harvey  20:50
Yeah, that's a really good point. I think, honestly, in my diatribe against email, I hadn't even thought about that. The inefficiency of putting your thoughts into words, when you can't, you know, bounce something off of somebody in person and see, okay, they didn't understand that at all. I gotta try again, trying to come up with the precise wording is kind of a hidden inefficiency of ease and otherwise efficient forms of communication. Yeah,

Frank Butler  21:13
I think there's other distractions in the workplace. I know, Slack is a big one. There's so many things like that Microsoft Teams, I think there's so many of these things like that, they just interject such constant interruptions, you can't get into a flow, if you're constantly getting pulled to one side or the other side, you can't get into a flow. And that's why there has to be some level of structure, right? Some and I mean, maybe less structure per se, but more routine, right? Because once you get into a routine can practice that routine, which is a form of structure, which is absolutely formed, like I'm thinking like, if you block off two hours a day, to do an activity that's pertaining to your job, you're not going to be very good at it. I think in the beginning,

Paul Harvey  21:52
I've been saying for 20 years, I'm going to do that four hours a day devoted to research in our case, but one task x can't seem to pull the trigger on that it's hard.

Frank Butler  22:02
We keep coming back to sort of certain themes, you know, maybe we need to create more structure and an environment, you know, leveraging the technology to maybe minimize those distractions, distractions, distractions, distractions, too, because it can be disrupted. So I'm thinking, but yeah, you know, maybe creating some structure using tech to help with the distraction, even if it's gonna make you efficient. In a sense, it's more about let's be efficient in the right way, and not get better at like answering emails, but let's make sure that we're doing our job first and then be more logical and how we run our email triage and the emails, right? Because I mean, you might have a student who needs an answer before test that's going to take priority over a colleague who reaches out and says, Hey, I got this idea for a research paper. I mean, you quite be quite honest. Right? That's gonna, you can get back to that colleague, later, later. And they're not going to be offended unless you're getting close to a deadline. Maybe that's why we like deadlines so much, because it forces structure on you that's actually hit that that can be a great point. I like to impose like internal deadlines a lot for projects I work on, it hasn't worked really well with my GA, but that's okay. Anyway, we would love to have your input on all this, you know, whether it's email related, or if you've got techniques, or maybe an app or something that you do to help with structure to help this be less distracting, or if you have any feedback on this at all, you know, we'd love to hear from you. Send us an email, ironically, ironically, we're telling you to send us an email, or tweet us, your website, tweet us what have you. In the future, we're probably also going to start doing these live. And that means that there's gonna be some sort of channel to be able to live chat with us too. So that's something that we're going to be trying to do more of once we got to get established. So anyway, with that, I think, you know, I think we're probably

Paul Harvey  23:53
Time to sign off and go catch up on emails!

Frank Butler  23:55
To catch up on some emails and maybe eat some turkey later

Paul Harvey  23:59
That’s true it’s Thanksgiving

Frank Butler  23:59
It is actually Thanksgiving. Yeah, exactly. We're doing this on Thanksgiving. We're working on Thanksgiving.

Paul Harvey  24:05

Paul Harvey  24:05
For you,

Paul Harvey  24:05
For you

Frank Butler  24:06
for you.

Paul Harvey  24:07
Our wives are very angry. I'm kidding,

Frank Butler  24:12
Yeah, I’m sorry baby. No, I think I think I'm okay.

Paul Harvey  24:16
I think we're okay. 


Frank Butler  24:21
All right. Thank you, everybody.

Paul Harvey  24:22
Good day.

Paul Harvey  [Outro]
Thank you for listening to the Busyness Paradox. Our show is distributed by Paul Harvey and Frank Butler. Music was adapted from “It’s Business Time” by Jermaine Clement and Brett McKenzie. Our production manager is Justin Wuntaek. 

We hope you enjoyed this episode, and we'd love to hear from you. Please send questions, comments or ideas for future episode topics to input at Or Find us on Twitter. Also, be sure to visit our website,, where you can read our blog posts, including “The Thing About Email” where we continue our discussion of the topics addressed in this episode.

Also, please take a moment to rate and follow or subscribe to our show on Apple podcasts, Spotify iHeartRadio, Google podcasts, or your preferred podcast provider.

Transcript provided by