“Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done” by Jocelyn Glei (Book Summary) - NJlifehacks
unsubscribe by jocelyn glei book summary

“Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done” by Jocelyn Glei (Book Summary)

Unsubscribe is a short book on email management by Jocelyn Glei.

The book does four things.

  1. First, it explains the psychology that makes email so addictive and problematic.
  2. Second, it gives you strategies for managing email in more productive ways.
  3. Third, it teaches you how to write better emails.
  4. Fourth, it gives you pre-written scripts for various email challenges, including writing thank you emails or delivering criticism.

If you’re struggling with email overload, addiction, or other related issues, read on.

Who is Unsubscribe for?

  • Anyone who wants to become more productive
  • Anyone struggling with email overload or addiction
  • Anyone interested in why email can be so addictive

1. Disturbing Email Stats

"Everyone hates email. And yet we can’t stop checking it. Recent studies show that office workers dip into their inboxes on average a whopping 74 times a day and spend roughly 28 percent of their total workday on the task of reading and responding to email. What’s more, scientists have established a clear link between spending time on email and stress: the more frequently we check our email, the more frazzled we feel."

Ouch. These are disturbing stats. The more frequently we check email, the more stressed we feel. Meanwhile, office workers check their inboxes 74x a day and spend 28% of their workday on reading and responding to email

2. Why Email is So Addictive

"Back in the 1930s, psychologist B. F. Skinner invented a device called the ‘operant conditioning chamber,’ now known as the Skinner Box, which he used to test behavioral theories on rats. Skinner wanted to see what effect different kinds of positive reinforcements like food pellets and negative reinforcements like electric shocks would have on the animals.
First, he experimented with putting the rats on a fixed schedule of behavior reinforcement. For instance, if the rat pressed the lever inside the box, it would receive a food pellet. If it continued pressing the lever, every hundredth time the rat would receive another pellet. Press the lever 100 times, get a reward—that was the system.
Skinner also experimented with a variable schedule. In this scenario the rat didn’t know when the reward was coming. It might have to press the lever 20 times to get a pellet, or it might have to press the lever 200 times to get a pellet. The system was random, and the rat could never know exactly when the reward was coming.
Surprisingly, the rats were significantly more motivated when they were on the variable schedule. Skinner found that even if he took away the rewards for the rats on the variable schedule, they would keep working, furiously pressing the lever for a very long time before giving up—much longer, in fact, than the rats on the fixed schedule would."

This is the key to understanding email addiction. Human beings, just like rats, respond stronger to what Skinner called variable reward schedules than fixed reward schedules. When you don’t know if you’ll get a big reward, small reward, or no reward at all – that’s when you are most likely to repeat a behavior and slip into addiction.

Email, it turns out, is a near-perfect random reward system. Think about what happens when you “press the lever” to check email. Most of the time, you get something disappointing – a request from your boss, a communication from a client, or some other boring message.

Every once in a while, however, you get something exciting – an invitation to a cool party, a fun cat video, or a compliment from your supervisor. It’s those random rewards that make email so addictive. They make us want to check it again and again and again in the hope of getting a reward.

3. Why Inbox Zero is Irresistible

"Alas, random rewards are not the whole story. There are still more unconscious forces at work, stoking our desire to relentlessly check email—namely, an innate urge to finish an activity once we’ve started it. When you recognize a task as complete, your brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, which makes you feel good and makes you want to repeat the behavior again to feel more pleasure.
Email taps into this urge to completion concept as well. Chipping away at our inbox gives us a sense of satisfaction precisely because the act includes such clear progress indicators. You started out with 232 email messages and now you have 50—progress! You’re advancing toward that holy grail of email productivity, inbox zero, and your brain is compelling you to see the job through."

Progress is one of the most motivating forces known to humankind. Harvard Professor Teresa Amabile calls it the progress principle: “Through exhaustive analysis of diaries kept by knowledge workers, we discovered the progress principle: Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”

The fact that email inboxes make progress so visible is another reason why email is so attractive to us. Combine it with our natural urge to complete an activity once we’ve started it and you understand why inbox zero is almost irresistible.

4. Why Email is Stressful Part 1: The Negativity Bias

"Daniel Goleman, the psychologist who brought the phrase ‘emotional intelligence’ into common parlance, looked into this phenomenon and discovered something fascinating: people have what he calls a natural negativity bias toward email. Goleman found that if the sender felt positive about an email, then the receiver usually just felt neutral. And if the sender felt neutral about the message, then the receiver typically felt negative about it. In other words, email really is like kryptonite when it comes to expressing positive emotions: it’s as if every message you send gets automatically downgraded a few positivity notches by the time someone else receives it."

Our negativity bias toward email means that every email we send or read is interpreted more negatively than it was intended.

This is one of the reasons why more email tends to equate more stress. When you receive a neutrally intended email, you might interpret that the sender was angry or upset with you. Or you might send out a neutrally intended email only to receive a response with a level of outrage that seems totally out of proportion. The result is stress.

The lack of social cues in email also forces us to spend more time trying to interpret what the sender meant: Are they angry? Are they satisfied? Are they upset? Should I apologize? Should I clarify myself? Should I…? Hence, more stress.

5. Why Email is Stressful Part 2: Social Reciprocity

"Like it or not, email breeds a curiously strong sense of obligation. The more unread messages we have in our inboxes, the more guilty we feel. The more time that passes before we can reply to a message, the more we apologize. How many times have you started an email with, I’m sorry I couldn’t get back to you sooner but...? Somewhere deep down we truly feel that we owe everyone a response. 
Numerous experiments have shown that humans tend to adhere to the rule of reciprocity in social interactions. At its most basic level this means that we want to respond to a positive action with another positive action. If someone does a favor for us, we want to return the favor, even if—and this is the crucial distinction—that favor wasn’t something we necessarily wanted."

I personally don’t feel obligated to respond to every email I get. However, when the emails I do feel obligated to respond start piling up, and I have 10, 20, 50, or more emails to respond to, then I’m beginning to feel stressed out.

6. Why Email is Stressful Part 3: Saying No

"In a now-classic MetaFilter post, Andrea Donderi theorizes that everyone is raised as either an asker or a guesser. In an ask culture you are taught that asking for whatever you need is fine, with the understanding that the person you’re asking can always decline. In a guess culture you are taught that you should only ask for something if you think you are very likely to get a yes. In other words, you are trained to be attentive to subtle details and signs that will help you assess the likelihood that someone will be receptive to your proposal.
The problem emerges when askers confront guessers. Askers are inclined to just ‘put it out there’ no matter what and leave the decision up to you: Can I crash in your studio apartment for a week? Will you code my website for free? Could you donate money to my new business venture? You get the idea.
Askers don’t mind if you say no because they were just testing the waters. But guessers have trouble believing that. They naturally assume that askers share their mindset, so they don’t think someone would ask for something if they didn’t expect to get a yes. Thus, when askers collide with guessers, their requests can often come off as brazen or presumptuous."

This happens a lot. A guesser gets a request from an asker and thinks: How could they expect me to agree to this?... Don’t they know I’m busy?... Why would they assume?...

Not only will this decision-making process cost you time and nerves, but you’ll also agree to things you probably don’t really want or should be doing.

That’s why this distinction is really useful. If you’re a guesser, you simply need to remember that askers don’t expect you to say yes. They probably didn’t give their request much thought but just put it out there. Knowing this makes it a lot easier to shrug off a request that would’ve previously bugged you.

7. Email Tip: Don’t Check Your Email More than Two to Three Times a Day

"There are two types of emailers: reactors, who rely on notifications and near-constant monitoring of their inboxes to nibble away at their email throughout the day, and batchers, who set aside specific chunks of time to power through their email so they can ignore it the rest of the day. Not surprisingly, batchers are significantly more effective when it comes to getting shit done, and according to recent research, they’re also less stressed. To get yourself into the groove of batching, I recommend setting aside 30–60 minutes in the late morning and a similar amount of time in the mid- to late afternoon for checking email. Depending on the volume of email you receive, you might want to add a third and final email processing window at the close of your workday to tie up loose ends and leave work with a clear conscience."

This is perhaps the #1 most important email productivity tip. Instead of checking email all throughout the day, you check it two to three times only, and if possible, on a pre-determined time schedule.

Turn off notifications and don’t check email throughout the day. This will do more for your productivity than you might imagine. It will also be a lot harder to pull off than you might imagine.

8. Email Tip: Avoid Leaving Your Email Open in the Background

"Avoid leaving your email open in the background. Research has shown that just having your email program open in the background of your computer screen as you focus on another task, even if the window is minimized, can decrease performance. Even if your email isn’t front and center, your brain still knows it’s there in the background and devotes a certain amount of energy to monitoring it, which takes away from your ability to truly execute the task at hand. Avoid such distractions by quarantining your email in a separate area from your main workspace. This might mean setting up a separate monitor just for email or checking your email only on a mobile phone or tablet. Checking your email in a physically separate space can actually make your incoming messages—and any attendant anxiety or urgency—feel more distant and less pressing. The more clear your primary work screen is, the more serene your mind is."

I used to have Gmail open in a tab non-stop when browsing on the Internet. Every couple of minutes, I would have a quick glance to see what was going on there. It wasn’t exactly a recipe for high productivity.

9. Email Tip: Mind the Switching Costs

"Mind the switching costs. Every time you stop doing a task you are working on to check your email, you incur what researchers call a “switching cost.” Particularly if you’re doing any kind of work that requires deep concentration (aka creative flow) such as writing, coding, or assembling a presentation, it typically takes at least 25 minutes to get properly back into the task after you’ve interrupted yourself. Even worse, multiple studies have shown that the more frequently you check your email, the less productive you are and the less happy you are. That’s a huge price to pay for a quick glance at your inbox."

Having a quick glance at your inbox a couple of times per hour may not feel like a big deal, but it is. Again, the #1 email productivity tip is to stop checking email all day long and instead check it just two to three times.

10. Email Tip: Close Conversations at the Earliest Opportunity

"The best way to get less email is to send less email. A great way to do this is to proactively close the conversation as soon as it’s convenient. This means always striving to respond to emails completely, cutting off the possibility of a long back-and-forth. For example, let’s say a colleague emails you asking if you want to go to lunch next week, and you write back, Sure! You know, of course, that he will now have to write you back asking what time is good for you, and the email thread will get longer. Why not just advance the conversation from the get-go by writing: Sure! What about next Thursday 9/1 at 12:30pm at the Corner Bistro? Now you’ve preempted additional emails about the date, time, and location, allowing the recipient to just respond: Sounds great. See you there. And now you’re done instead of having to email ten more times."

Do a bit more work when you send or reply to emails. Compare the following examples:

Version 1: “It was great meeting you last week. I’d love to follow up on some stuff we’ve discussed. Do you want to grab coffee?”

Version 2: “It was great meeting you last week. I’d love to follow up on some stuff we’ve discussed. Do you want to grab coffee? I have two free time slots this week: Tuesday 7/1 at 10:30am or Wednesday 7/2 at 12:30pm. What do you think?”

It’s obvious that version 1 on average leads to more emails than version 2. By doing a bit more work with your emails, you can reduce your email load by a considerable margin.

Further Reading

If you enjoyed this summary, you’ll likely enjoy the following productivity books as well.

  • Deep Work by Cal Newport. Hands-down the best productivity guide for knowledge workers in the 21st century.
  • The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. Another great read on productivity.
  • The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey. Perhaps the best personal productivity book for beginners.

And if you want more summaries like this one, check out Blinkist for instant access to 2,000+ summaries of the best nonfiction and self-help books ever.

Nils Salzgeber

Nils Salzgeber is the author of two books and co-founder of the popular NJlifehacks blog. He is passionate about anything that helps him become a more peaceful, productive, and loving version of himself. After quitting university twice, he has recently gone back to get a psychology degree. Nils lives in Thun, Switzerland.

  • Vipul says:

    Great summary article about email distraction. Really need to check the emails only 2-3 times a day. And switching costs do affect the flow and the overall quality of work. Digital notifications are disturbing human work like never before in the human history. It already seems too much right now. Do not know how the world will look in the next 15-20 years.

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