4 Ways Email is Killing Your Productivity & What You Can Do About it
Imagine a world without email.
…You wake up every morning without an urge to compulsively check your inbox.
…You commute to work without checking email.
…You go to the toilet without checking email.
…You work at the office without checking email.
…You go to sleep without checking email.
How much more productive would you be? How much more focused, relaxed, and at ease? How much more time would you have at your hands?
Face it. Email is killing your productivity. Here are four reasons why.
1. Email Kills Your Mood
Emotions associated with email include overwhelm, overload, anxiety, and a loss of control. In one study, 45% of participants explicitly associated the volume of email they received with a loss of control. According to the researchers, this came down to two anxieties: “the fear of falling behind in one’s work and the fear of missing important information.”
They explain that “both anxieties were tied to the technology’s asynchrony, which enabled people to send messages at any time without disturbing the recipient and which allowed messages to accumulate in the recipient’s inbox until processed. Informants spoke of the fear of falling behind using an imagery of a mountain of messages that piled up unanswered, making them feel overloaded and out of control.”
The researchers concluded that “the more time people spent handling e-mail, the greater was their sense of being overloaded.”
Gloria Mark, a leading researcher in the field of information work, adds to this notion. She explains “it is well established by numerous studies that email leads people to feel cognitively overloaded. The popular press has documented this concern: a search in the Google newspaper archives has produced over 166,000 news articles on the sole topic of email overload in the workplace. Sherry Turkle reflects this sentiment as ‘we don’t do email, our email does us.’ Research studies have documented concerns from users about the challenge of keeping up with email.”
In one of Mark’s studies, 32 information workers were tracked for a full workweek and asked to rate their mood. Participants received probes on their computer screen and were asked to rate their mood “right now.” The reported mood was then correlated with the computer activity people had just performed before the probe came up. The results showed “a significant positive correlation between negative mood and the amount of email use in the 5-min window before the probe appeared. The more email that people dealt with, the more negative they reported their mood to be. Simply put, doing email puts people in a bad mood.”
Let me repeat: doing email puts people in a bad mood. Why is that important? Because your mood strongly influences your productivity. We know from Positive Psychology research that positive emotions increase performance while negative emotions decrease performance across a variety of skills.
Negative emotions, very much like the ones associated with email, are known to inhibit self-control, increase aggression, reduce willingness to help others, reduce persistence on difficult tasks, increase substance cravings, and much more.
One study concluded that negative affect (science term for negative emotions) is the most potent threat to self-regulation: “Contemporary investigations into the causes of self-regulation failure have demonstrated that the ability to self-regulate can be undermined by a variety of threats that act by impairing awareness, exhausting limited resources, or increasing the salience of temptations. Perhaps the most potent of these threats is negative affect. When people experience emotional distress, be it in the form of a bad mood, disappointment, or social rejection, they often find it more difficult to resist temptations or to suppress unwanted impulses and may engage in various forms of self-defeating behaviors.”
Positive emotions have the opposite effect. They increase self-control, enhance pro-social behavior, boost productive output, improve problem solving, improve physical health, reduce stress, and much more. In a study with four-year-olds, for example, the kids primed to experience positive emotions outperformed kids in a control group, completing a set of simple tasks faster and with fewer errors.
When it comes to mood and productivity, one particularly relevant study found that negative mood was related to employees doing less work – answering fewer calls and taking more breaks, for example. "Employees knew that they were being monitored and that their supervisors knew when they weren't taking calls. Still, when they were in a bad mood they tended to be less available, which suggested they needed time away," explains one of the researchers. "They just couldn't sit there, take the calls and pretend."
When you’re feeling bad – when you’re under the influence of negative emotions – you don’t perform at your best. You make more mistakes. You’re more perceptible to distractions. Your self-control is inhibited. Making you feel bad is the first blow email elicits on your productivity.
2. Email Stresses You Out
The negative emotions associated with email not only negatively impact your mood, they also add to your stress level. In one study, participants were asked to turn off their email for a week while wearing heart rate monitors to measure their heart rate variability (HRV) – a commonly used measure for stress. Compared to the baseline period with email use, the HRV results revealed lower stress during the week when email was turned off, even though other communication channels like instant messaging or the phone were still available to be used.
A similar study, again using heart rate monitors, showed a direct relationship between time spent on email and physically measured stress levels. The researchers concluded “the longer daily duration spent on email, the lower the assessed productivity and the higher the stress.”
Another study investigated how the frequency of checking email affects stress levels over a period of two weeks. During one week, 124 participants were randomly assigned to limit checking email to three times a day; during the other week, they could check an unlimited number of times. The researchers found that “during the limited email use week, participants experienced significantly lower daily stress than during the unlimited email use week. Lower stress, in turn, predicted higher well-being on a diverse range of well-being outcomes. These findings highlight the benefits of checking email less frequently for reducing psychological stress.”
Clearly, email stresses you out. But how does that impact your productivity, exactly? First of all, understand that stress isn’t always bad. If it’s short-term and adaptive, then stress is a marvelous and incredibly helpful mechanism. However, when something adds to your chronic stress load without offering any benefits, then it’s a problem – and email fits that bill perfectly.
So, email adds to your chronic, maladaptive stress load. And the higher that stress load rises, the more your productivity and well-being will suffer, as explained in books like Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers or The End of Stress as We Know it. Chronic stress contributes to cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, atherosclerosis, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, clinical depression or anxiety, and much more. Most importantly for our discussion, even acute doses of maladaptive stress can have detrimental effects on self-control, pushing us into short-term decision-making while literally shutting off the executive functions in our brain used for long-term planning and other cognitive tasks. Adding to our maladaptive stress load is email’s second blow to productivity.
3. Email Keeps You Busy (On the Wrong Things)
According to a 2012 report from the McKinsey Global institute, 28% of an employee’s workweek is spent on reading, composing, or responding to email.
Another study suggests that users check email 11 times per hour and spend an average of 34.5 minutes per day on email. Another one found that email accounted for 24% of the tasks information workers reported performing on a daily basis. Another one reported an average of 87 emails received per day, while yet another one found that 84% of users keep their email up in the background at all times, and 64% use notifications to access email at least some of the time.
Lastly, a study from 2003 discovered that 70% of all emails received were opened within 6 seconds, and it took an average of 64 seconds to resume the task interrupted by email.
For a variety of factors, including culture, workplace, or measurement technique, every study will show different results for email use. No matter how much time you’re currently spending on email, however, it’s probably too much. The truth is, email keeps you busy but keeps you from being productive. Henry David Thoreau put it best: “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”
This comes back to the pareto principle, also called the 80/20 principle, which states that 80% of your results come from 20% of your actions. If we’re being honest, the results email delivers aren’t in proportion to the time we dedicate to it. This is the third way email kills our productivity. It plain wastes our time.
4. Email Traps You in Low-Performance, Task-Switching Mode
We’ve saved the biggest issue for last, so buckle up. Consider some of the research mentioned so far. One study showed that we check email an average of 11 times per hour. Another said that we receive 87 emails per day, while yet another found that 70% of the emails we receive are opened within 6 seconds, and it then takes us an average 64 seconds to resume the interrupted task.
I haven’t even mentioned this study by UC Irvine yet. It found that office workers switched windows an average of 18 times per hour when they didn’t have access to email – but 36 times each hour when they did.
This has less to do with notifications than you might think. The research shows that even in the absence of notifications, we’ll check email over and over, interrupting whatever task we’re currently doing. (Read my article on the psychology of email to discover why we feel so compelled to check our inbox.)
The point is, whether the cause is internal or external, email is a source of constant interruption. Most of us can’t seem to go five, let alone ten minutes without interrupting what we’re doing to have a quick glance at our inbox – and then it takes us on average 64 seconds to resume the interrupted task.
Why is this so troublesome? Because task-switching has detrimental effects on our performance. You see, every time you switch from one task to another, you generate switching costs, which make you more prone to errors and lead to time penalties of up to 100% depending on the complexity of the task. According to David Meyer, a leading multitasking and task-switching researcher, “even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone's productive time.”
Researchers don’t agree on why switching costs occur. One popular theory revolves around the concept of attention residue. According to this idea, it takes the brain time to “forget” about a previous task before it can fully concentrate on a new one. Because residues of attention are still with the last task, the brain shows lower performance on the new task. Depending on the complexity of the tasks involved, it may take the brain a couple of seconds, a few minutes, or even longer to fully focus on the new activity.
Whatever the reasons are, the brain is bad at switching between tasks. As I explain in this article, the way to maximize productivity is therefore to focus on a single task, with full attention, for extended periods of time. By constantly interrupting us, however, email is keeping us from ever entering that high performance mode. Instead of focusing on one thing and getting into a productive flow, email elicits residue-slathering interruptions every couple of minutes.
Email keeps us busy and makes us feel like we’re getting a lot done, when in reality, its interrupting nature stops us from being truly productive.
Cutting Off Email for a Week – A Preliminary Study
An interesting study done in 2012 sheds more light on email’s productivity disrupting nature. Thirteen people agreed to cut off their email for one workweek. Here’s what the researchers concluded: “Our results show that without email, people multitasked less and had a longer task focus, as measured by a lower frequency of shifting between windows and a longer duration of time spent working in each computer window. Further, we directly measured stress using wearable heart rate monitors and found that stress, as measured by heart rate variability, was lower without email.”
“Consistent with the heart rate measurements and logged computer activity, nearly all participants reported that when email was cut off, they were able to focus more intently on their work and could spend more time on critical work and work a longer chunk of time on a single project. Participants also explained that they lacked self-control to prevent themselves from checking email continually. One person said: “I let the sound of the bell and the popups rule my life.”
These findings add to the mountain of evidence showing that email is obliterating our productivity. But let’s face it, it’s neither practical nor realistic to completely cut ourselves off of email. So, what can we do?
3 Tips for Handling Email More Effectively
The following three tips will go a long way in helping you reclaim your time, attention, and productivity.
- Turn off notifications. We check email more than enough without notifications already. There’s no need to have external triggers constantly derailing our limited focus even further. If you want to get fancy, set up notifications for your VIPs, such as your spouse, kids, or your boss.
- Check only twice a day. This reduces switching costs by a lot and has been shown to reduce stress. Decide on two pre-determined email blocks and stick with them. Why not schedule an hour of email at 11am and another hour at 4pm?
- Write fewer (and better) emails. If you respond to every message within a few minutes, no wonder your inbox is overflowing. Instead, write fewer but better emails, and don’t necessarily respond right away. Check out this article for more on that.
Email is a productivity nightmare. Every time you compulsively check your inbox, you get an instant dose of negativity and stress, lose any flow or focus you’ve had, elicit switching costs, and waste your time on other people’s agendas.
Funny enough, the more email you send out, the more emails you’ll receive – time spent in your inbox feeds on itself.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. By following a few simple steps, you can reclaim your time, focus, and productivity. Turning off notifications and committing to check email no more than twice a day can go a long way.
Your email or your productivity. What will it be?