The 28-Hour Hamster Wheel


By The 28-Hour Hamster Wheel Holger Reisinger

Knowledge workers spend 28 hours a week answering e-mails or looking for information. But research shows that there are better and faster ways of generating your business results. It’s time to dismantle the hamster wheel, stop hiding behind our screens, and start having meaningful conversations instead. 

The 28-Hour Hamster Wheel

My company, just like most others, spends a great deal of time on e-mails. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the average knowledge worker spends a whopping 28 hours e-mailing, requesting and sending information back and forth. I personally receive well over 200 e-mails a day and often have to spend my evenings answering them all, in order to be able to get my other work done when I’m back in the office.I guess that the lyrics of traditional boy/girl break-up love songs seldom have much to offer in solving today’s management challenges. But just the other day, Cliff Richard’s old hit “We don’t talk anymore” was playing on my car radio, and it got me thinking.

Twenty-eight solid hours! That only leaves roughly 12 hours for actual work that week. And I can’t help but think that so much time spent on e-mails is not time well spent.

They don’t get it

Don’t get me wrong. Technology, such as e-mail, is great for connecting people. It’s fast, convenient, and can be done almost any time. But the question is, is it perhaps a little too convenient? Has e-mailing replaced something more important in our (business) life?

Recent research seems to indicate exactly that. In fact, e-mails are not opening conversations, but ending them. E-mails are for confirming decisions, putting final touches on details, or storing information for later use. But e-mails are not very well suited for sharing information or creating new ideas. That requires a level of spontaneity and emotional connection which can never be achieved in emails.

Studies from New York University’s Stern School of Business show that as few as half of recipients get the tone or intent of an e-mail. And most people “vastly overestimate” their ability to relay and comprehend messages accurately. And, even more interestingly, a Syracuse University study shows that misinterpretation is at its highest when the e-mail comes from a boss.

In short: you may write it. But they don’t get it.

And that’s where Cliff Richard’s song comes in. Conversations are the lifeblood of any relationship. When you stop talking (and start e-mailing…) your relationships start dying – in your personal as well as in your professional life. Slowly, but surely.

The power of conversation

Emotion and innovation is the power of a face-to face conversation. Here, completely new elements pop up in the conversation. And from people’s facial expressions, you instinctively know if your co-workers understand what you’re saying, if they agree, and if your “brilliant” new idea is actually good or bad.

True “working knowledge” contains values, personal experience, expert insight, and emotion. And you can’t convey that in an e-mail. It’s in the talks in the cafeteria and hallway, the bull sessions around the watercooler, the phone visits, and the shoptalk over coffee, that knowledge crucial for your business is created and shared.

Twenty-eight hours of e-mailing is simply too much. So, let’s dismantle the hamster wheel, stop hiding behind our screens, and start having meaningful conversations instead. Personally, the next time I’m contemplating writing someone an e-mail, I will make good use of the old kindergarten traffic school warning: Stop and think! I will consider whether an e-mail is really the best tool of communication for this particular situation, or if I am better off starting a real conversation instead.

Statistically, it will solve the problem faster. The result will be far better. Everyone will be tuned into the same solution. And it may even leave me a little extra time for humming along to old 70s hits on my car radio as well.

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3 Responses

  1. Anita Rotheram March 22, 2017 / 13:19

    My observation is the part of the problem is that we still use email as the “engine” for transactions that should be tooled. I will use the example of exception management. We build & tool processes for perfect flows; “sunny day” processes, often not embedding robust exception management within. Then we use email to manage process exceptions or defects when we should be logging issues or incidents in the appropriate exception logs which enable tracking, follow-up and metrics.

    There are other examples of this – just look at those emails and ask yourself “Is this a communication email or a process driver email?”

  2. Louise Harder April 24, 2014 / 19:11

    I can’t help but sharing this short video with you all http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1VuMdLm0ccU. Look at the hamsters 🙂 .

    When asking people about “the in-box” they tell me that this is how they feel when trying to empty it. And when they are not turning the wheel them-selves, then they are being tossed around by others. The reason why “the hamster wheel” is such a good metaphor is because we actually have the power to choose when to stop being on “autopilot”. Not just because of hunger or thirst, but because we can force ourself to reflect and realize “This doesn’t give much meaning and does not create value”.
    And we should reflect on our behavior. In a great article from 2008 by Katherine L. Milkman, Dolly Chugh, and Max H. Bazerman about “How to improve decision making” they say that humans – because of increasing time pressure and too much information – are faced with the challenge of taking more bad decisions, making costly mistakes for business and society. Let me quote: In a knowledge based economy, we propose that a knowledge worker’s primary deliverable is a good decision. In addition, more and more people are being tasked with making decisions that are likely to be biased – because of the presence of too much information, time pressure, simultaneous choice, or some other constraints”.
    So let’s improve 🙂 Take the time, have more great conversations that enlightens and challenge your thinking, and start sending fewer e-mails.