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The hidden costs of late night emails

Many of us spend our evenings ploughing through our inboxes. We trawl through our inboxes (with a glass of wine, or a cuppa in hand) trying to respond to the multitude of emails that have accumulated during our workday (or maybe they’re just the ones that have snuck in between when you shut down your laptop as you walked out of the office until you open your emails again after dinner). Whilst it may appear to be a smart move on your behalf to try and get ahead of your inbox, there are some lesser-known, sinister consequences of emailing at night.

Why you shouldn’t email at night

1. Neuroscience tells us it’s a bad move

One of the chief concerns that I share with corporate clients relating to emailing at night, relates to understanding how our brains work at night. At night, our logical brain is switched off (the prefrontal cortex) and your amygdala, your emotional brain, is switched on instead. This is not a good combination. Basically, the part of the brain that helps us make smart decisions, control our impulses and think critically and logically about decisions powers down at night and our emotional brain fires up. This means, we’re more inclined to send a terse email to a colleague or client, or perhaps make more errors at night when our logical brain isn’t working to its capacity.  It’s a bit like sending an SMS when you’re intoxicated- you just shouldn’t email at night.

Tip- if you do need to catch up on your emails at night (I get it, sometimes I need to do that too, or I’d have to declare ‘email bankruptcy’), save your drafts, so you can re-read the send them when you’re not tired.

Snowball effect

When you reply to an email and the other person receives it, they often feel compelled to respond. Even if it’s just to signal the receipt of the email. So if you send a late-night email and catch your colleague or client on email and it can lure you into a ping-pong interaction. Email like this can create a snowball effect.

I recently worked with a corporate team and they came up with the (cheeky) catchphrase, “Don’t touch your box at night.” It was a playful way for them to remember as a team that sending or responding to emails at night wasn’t in their best interests and would create a perceived need amongst colleagues to reciprocate, or in some instances, feel guilty about not responding.

Tip- during corporate workshops I have delegates reflect on email responsiveness expectations. We have explicit conversations amongst co-workers about what they consider to be appropriate times and rates of response. This enables team members to have an intimate understanding of how to best meet the needs of other colleagues. It’s also an opportunity to clearly articulate how to deal with urgent issues, so email isn’t used or perceived as the default tool. For example, an issue requiring urgent attention and action would need to meet certain criteria and also be dealt with via a synchronous communication tool like SMS or a communication board.

You’ll sabotage your sleep

Sending emails at night can impact both the quality and quantity of your sleep. Looking at a laptop, smartphone or tablet can diminish your body’s production of the sleep hormone melatonin and delay the onset of sleep. The blue light that’s emitted from such devices hampers the pineal gland from producing melatonin. 

We also know that late-night emails can hyper-arouse the brain, especially if dealing with complicated situations or difficult challenges via email. Falling asleep after we’ve been in this hyper-aroused state will be challenging and this stressed state may adversely impact the quality of the sleep you accumulate.

Tip- establish a digital bedtime for devices and keep them out of your bedroom (even seeing your phone while you sleep can be a psychological trigger for you to think about work).

Not the best use of your time

Working to your chronotype ensures that you’re performing challenging tasks when your energy is at its peak, and less-strenuous tasks when your energy isn’t at optimal levels. Research confirms that 65% of adults are ‘middlebirds’ so their energy is typically at its peak during the middle of the day and will wane towards the end of the day- this is the ‘ideal’ time to be checking emails. Late-night checking of emails could be justified if you were an ‘owl’. 

So many of us today no longer have a psychological break from work. Thanks to ubiquitous and mobile technologies, the boundaries between work and home life have become blurred.  Our brains (and bodies) need to have downtime and an opportunity to digitally-disconnect. This is not only vital for our mental and physical wellbeing, but it’s also critical for our performance at work. We can’t be at our peak-performance when we’re depleted.

Have you taken my ‘Digital Distraction and Dependence Quiz’? Discover more about your digital wellbeing and behaviours. 

Reflects poorly on you

You may be jumping into bed and you remember that you forgot a critical briefing document for a meeting tomorrow. Perhaps a great idea springs to mind and you want to email your colleague before it dissipates. Doing this occasionally may be okay, but if this is becoming your standard mode of operation, it may start to reflect poorly on your time management and organisational skills. Some colleagues admit that they will reply to mangers’ emails late at night to give the illusion that they’re always -on so they’re perceived in high regard, but the reality is that it may have the opposite effect and reflect poorly on your capabilities.

So whilst you may have good intentions of emailing at night, there are a myriad of reasons that would suggest we should avoid this practice, when possible.

Interested in Dr Kristy speaking in your workplace or event about digital productivity?

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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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