What Tetris Taught Me About Email

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Tetris Screenshot (Cropped) 2013

I still remember my first computer. It was 1992 and the whole family crowded round mum and dad as we unwrapped our brand new IBM VGA computer. The whole experience was fantastic. Purchased under the guise of improving my schoolwork, I soon had access to the world’s best arcade games – King’s Quest, Street Fighter II, Bubble Bobble and more! The most addictive by far was the simple shape-matching game Tetris.

Tetris is one of the most successful and influential video games of all times. Created by a Soviet computer scientist, it is simple in design and highly addictive in nature. (No mum and dad, I wasn’t doing homework all that time in high school!) Colourful shapes drop down the screen and disappear as you turn them to complete each line. The faster you clear lines, the faster shapes fall. Quicker. Faster. More random. Until eventually you lose control, your screen is piled high with multi-coloured tetrominoes (great word huh!) and the game is over.

When I reflect on the hours I spent playing Tetris as a kid, two thoughts come to mind. Firstly, despite the adrenalin rush, I actually found the game quite stressful. No matter how good I became, the shapes just kept coming and coming, until I lost control and the computer won. Trust a cold war Soviet scientist to invent such an effective mind altering game! Secondly, it seems to me that high volume email functions in a similar way in today’s workplace.

Between 2005 and 2010, the volume of email that each of us received doubled[1]. More than half of workers admit to being stressed by how much email they receive[2]. Increasingly, people feel out of control and struggle to manage the continual stream of email appearing day and night, over weekends and most impolitely, during holidays. Unlike Tetris, email has no in-built reset or ‘game over’ button, unless you declare email bankruptcy and delete everything in your inbox!

Because of this increasing volume, speed and 24-hour accessibility of email, old solutions don’t work as well as they used to. Ignoring your inbox has never worked. Yet working harder and faster for longer on email doesn’t deliver the desired results either. Those who ‘live in their inbox’ and react rapidly often find their inboxes re-filling at twice the rate as before (sound like Tetris?) And while it’s still possible to outrun email through sheer brute force, the productivity cost and time lost across the rest of work and life is often substantial.

While there is no reset button when it comes to high volume email (where are those Soviets when you need them), a clear and practical solution does exist. While not complicated, it does require new thinking and a different approach to how you and I approach email.

Our next article will discuss the thought processes required to process your inbox to zero everyday.

Great news – we can also help out with Email Ninja training and eLearning.

What are your tips for managing high volume email?

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Shipley, D. and Schwalbe, W. (2008). SEND: Why people email so badly and how to do it better. Random House, New York.
  2. Hair, M., Renaud, K. and Ramsay, J. (2007). The influence of self-esteem and locus of control on perceived email-related stress. Computers in Human Behaviour, 23: 2791-2803.
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  1. Unsubscribe! All those newsletters you sign up for but tend to delete unread – unsubscribe and enjoy the ongoing space created.

    1. Hi Lyndel (past ninja!) As you know, we agree with you. A lot of time is wasted deleting stuff that we could avoid in the first place. The irony is not lost on us that we teach people to unsubscribe from newsletters, but not ours!