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Is Email Making You Dumb?

Many of us feel constantly tethered to our inboxes. We check email often whilst still in bed, between meetings, on the commute to and from work, at our kids’ sports training and often we do one last sweep of our inboxes before bed. Some of us even check our inboxes in the bathroom- referred to as ‘toilet tweeting’. Work can now bleed into our personal lives and we often have no psychological break from our work, thanks to the ubiquity of email. As a result, we’re constantly switched on and this is impacting both our wellbeing and performance.

Email now plays an integral and intrusive role in our lives. Our email habits are often unhealthy and unproductive. The thought of not checking our inboxes fills us with ‘techno-stress’ ( this is why some of us sneak off on our remote holidays, with limited WiFi and do a ‘quick check’ of our inboxes). Heck, some of us even suffer from ‘email apnea’ where we literally hold our breath when we dive into our inboxes (our heart rates accelerate, our breaths shorten and we activate our sympathetic nervous system, which is the fight, flight or flee response).

Even at work many of us have developed some unhelpful email habits that are compromising our productivity. We nibble on our inboxes throughout the day. In fact, research has shown that the average knowledge worker checks a communication device every six minutes1. Data has also shown that 70% of emails are opened within six seconds of receipt and 84% of email users keep their inbox open in the background at all times2. These email habits are putting a significant dent in our productivity.

We spend copious amounts of time sending and replying to emails. A 2018 study showed via actual-time tracking data, that knowledge workers are spending up to 2.5 hours/day in their inbox3. Other studies have found that workers check their email on average 74 times per day4.

Email really does feel like groundhog day- I liken my inbox to my dishwasher: I empty it and before long it’s filled to the brim and needs emptying… again.

The Impact on our Performance

A study commissioned by Hewlett Packard, performed by Dr Glenn Wilson, found that excessive use of technology reduced workers’ intelligence and short-term memory5. Dealing with emails, text messages, phone calls, and constant distractions can result in a decline in IQ. According to Dr Wilson’s report, workers showed up to a 10% decline in IQ when tested after a multitasking challenge which jumped between five and six different projects. While the Wilson study utilised a small sample size, it corroborates other studies and the latest neuroscience confirms- multitasking results in performance degradation6.

The relentless combined influx of emails, phone calls, alerts and notifications from collaboration tools like Slack or Jira and social media pings prevalent in today’s workplace is costing organisations a significant amount in terms of distracted employees. Many employees’ attention is constantly hijacked and fractured, limiting their capacity to engage in what Cal Newport refers to as ‘deep work’.  In his book Deep Work7, Cal Newport claims digital distractions are one of the key factors driving knowledge workers to engage in ‘shallow work’ rather than ‘deep work’. Shallow work can be described as work that isn’t cognitively taxing, such as replying to emails. The barrage of digital distractions means we’re often left with only brief pockets of time for deep work which is the cognitively-taxing, challenging and impactful activities. The type of work we should be spending most of our time undertaking.

However, a study in 2018 from Rescue Time found that knowledge workers, on average, spend just two hours and 48 minutes a day for productive tasks (or 14 hours and 8 minutes a week)8. This means the time employees and executives are dedicating to deep work is diminishing and email is one of the chief culprits contributing to this lack of deep work.

MY TOP TIPS FOR TAMING EMAIL

It’s imperative that we adopt sustainable, healthy email behaviours that will optimise, not stifle, either our productivity or wellbeing.

In the last twelve months, I’ve been obsessed with experimenting with a variety of brain-based strategies to help manage email in a more productive way. Why? I used some tracking data via Rescue Time to time track how I was utilising my time online. I was horrified when I discovered that some weeks, up to 40% of my work hours were dedicated to email!

As a researcher and speaker in this field, you’d think I’d know better. However, I’m not immune to the seduction of email. That’s why I embarked on doing some research and mini-experiments in this field. As a result, I’ve developed a signature system for managing my inbox. I’m pleased to say that I’m now spending <10% of my work hours managing email each week due to the system I’ve developed. Not only has my productivity rapidly increased, but making these changes has had cascading benefits for my mental wellbeing too. That’s why I created the Taming Email Mini-Masterclass where I share my 6-step signature system based on neuro-hacks and my 5-folder method to effectively manage emails.

Below is a sample of some of the strategies I share in the Taming Email Mini-Masterclass:

// Timetable- don’t have your inbox humming along in the background on your computer. Instead, set aside dedicated times of the day when you check email. I’ve found having my ‘email hours’ communicated in my email signature, or creating an email autoresponder (using your Out-of-Office tool) helpful to explain my expected response rate to people who I email. Also, critical here is to ensure that your alerts and notifications are disabled- even if you have the willpower to avoid checking email during your ‘deep work’ time,  just hearing the sound of an inbound email, or reading the quick summary in the corner of your screen is enough to fracture your attention.

// Time block– according to Parkinson’s Law work expands the time we give it. So set finite time periods to check email. For example, I typically check email between 10-10:30 am and again between 2:30-3 pm most weekdays. Why? These are times of the day when my energy starts to lag. I’m a ‘lark’ (according to my chronotype assessment) and so I want to keep my optimal energy times for ‘deep work’ and do more ‘shallow work’ when my energy is waning.

// 2 minutes or triage– I suggest the 2-minute or triage rule. That is, when you dive into your inbox in your allocated time, deal with each email on a triage basis. If you can respond to the email in less than two minutes, deal with it immediately. Then move that email out of your inbox (usually to the trash or the ‘Dump’ folder as I refer to it in my 5-folder method). If you need additional time to reply or if you need to seek additional information, triage your email to a designated folder (I suggest using only a small number of folders). My five-folder method suggests having a ‘Dump’, ‘Do’, ‘Delegate’, ‘Digest’ and ‘Documentation’ folders (and nothing more) which I explain in Taming Email. Having too many folders adds to your cognitive overwhelm and wastes precious time sorting and retrieving. Search capabilities with most email providers are now so sophisticated that it’s easy to retrieve emails without having to dig into elaborate folder systems.

// Touch once- each email should only be ever read once and moved. Try to avoid reading your email on your phone and then dealing with it later on your laptop, or reading it on your laptop and leaving it there. Don’t allow emails to pile up in your inbox. During your dedicated email time scan your inbox and respond (if <2 minutes) or move it to a folder. So much of our mental load can be wasted on seeing a huge volume of emails sitting in our inbox (it’s a bit like how we feel when we’re working in a messy office).

// Timing- avoid checking emails late at night. I know many of us like to go to bed feeling like our inbox is empty (or manageable). However, we’re much more likely to make careless errors at night or respond to a client or colleague’s email in a more terse way at night. Why? The frontal lobe of our brain shuts down at night- this is the part of the brain that’s responsible for managing our impulses, problem-solving and thinking rationally. Instead, our limbic system fires up at night and we tend to be more emotional. So as one of my recent corporate clients suggested, live by the mantra, “Don’t touch your box at night.”

// Telephone- I often say the basics work if you work the basics. Want to stop the influx of emails landing in your inbox? A simple solution is to pick up the phone. Yes, call someone and put an end to the snowball effect of email. Email was never designed to be a primary tool for communication. So go old school, and pick up the phone and have a direct conversation.

You can find out more about my mini-masterclass Taming Email here. I’ve worked with a range of employees and executives from big and small organisations in Australia to help bolster their productivity. Nailing your email if the first and impactful way you can boost your digital wellbeing and optimise your performance.

References

1McKay, J. (2018). Communication Overload: Our research shows most workers can’t go 6 minutes without checking email or IM.
2RescueTime (2019). The State of Work Life Balance in 2019: What we learned from studying 185 million hours of working time.
3
Naragon, K. (2018) We Still Love Email, But We’re Spreading the Love with Other Channels
4Mark, G., Iqbal, S. T., Czerwinski, M., Johns, P., Sano, A., & Lutchyn, Y. (2016, May). Email duration, batching and self-interruption: Patterns of email use on productivity and stress. In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 1717-1728). ACM.
5Wilson, G. (2005) The multitasking myth.
6
Mark, G., Gudith, D., & Klocke, U. (2008, April) The cost of interrupted work: more speed and stress. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 107-110). ACM.
Altmann, E. M., Trafton, J. G., & Hambrick, D. Z. (2014). Momentary interruptions can derail the train of thought. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(1), 215.
Spira, J. B., & Feintuch, J. B. (2005). The cost of not paying attention: How interruptions impact knowledge worker productivity. Report from Basex.
Uncapher, M. R., Thieu, M. K., & Wagner, A. D. (2016). Media multitasking and memory: Differences in working memory and long-term memory. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 23(2), 483-490.
7Newport, C. (2016) Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world. Hachette UK.
8RescueTime (2019). The State of Work Life Balance in 2019: What we learned from studying 185 million hours of working time.

 

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I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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We’re at the point now where we literally can not switch off. But without devices, most of us simply can’t do our jobs.

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