When was the last time you checked your email account? A few hours ago? Were you looking at your inbox right before you started reading this article? Stats from Business Insider reveal that over 1/3 of Americans check their email continuously throughout the day. According to AOL’s 2010 survey, 47% of people claim to be hooked on email, 25% can’t go without email for more than 3 days, 60% check email on vacation, and 59% check email from the bathroom.
It's time to break the habit.
The Very Real Problem with Checking Email
Before we dive in, we should consider: is checking email actually a negative addiction, or is it necessary for functioning in an office job? After all, according to our recent survey, 59% of people report that their team stores project information in emails, and 13% said their team goes as far as to track project status solely via email. It seems like an important tool for getting work done.
But as you'll see below, it has been shown that email is a major productivity inhibitor, and can even be negatively impacting our moods:
1. Managing email constantly means more time wasted
The average worker is interrupted every 10 minutes or an average of 56 times per day, and it takes around 25 minutes to completely refocus attention back on the original task. That's 2 hours spent recovering from distractions every day. And unfortunately, habitual email checking is one of those pesky interruptions that cause you to lose focus. In one workplace study, Jackson et al. (2002) found that 70% of emails got a reaction within 6 seconds of arrival, and 85% within 2 minutes. After being interrupted by email, it took participants of this study 64 seconds of "Now where was I again?" to recover their train of thought.
Furthermore, according to McKinsey Global Institute Analysis, 28% of the workweek is spent reading and answering e-mail. If you work a standard 40-hour week, that means you waste over 11 hours every week just looking at your inbox instead of getting real work done.
2. Checking email inhibits productivity
Email is a form of "productive procrastination" that we love to rely on. When we don't want to work on our actual tasks, we think, "I'll just answer emails for a few minutes." We feel better about procrastinating via email because it's "technically work." This thought process is an enabler for bad habits, and a "few minutes" of email checking can quickly stretch out longer than you planned.
As it turns out, many people admit that checking email frequently is a problem for productivity. In the 2015 Work Management Survey by Wrike, 40% of respondents identified email as one of their top productivity blockers, taking 3rd prize overall from the list of common work inhibitors. Responding to email was cited as more detrimental to productivity than unclear priorities, procrastination, and even short deadlines.
3. Waiting for email is ruining your mood
Next time you're at work feeling like you woke up on the wrong side of the bed, consider this: email dependency is actually ruining your mood. You check it over and over (and over), waiting for a bit of good news. But it never comes. Or it comes so irregularly that you're let down hundreds of times. Nancy Colier calls it "lottery brain" in Psychology Today. It's an adaptive part of our brain that "inspires hope and a sense of possibility, as long as that hope is also supported by proactive agency in our behavior." Our habitual checking inspires hope — and continuously disappoints when that great message doesn't come.
Plus it's stressing us out. In a study from the University of British Columbia, they found that the study group who checked their email as often as possible experienced far more stress than the group who was only allowed to check their email three times a day, and they didn't feel any more productive because of it. Emails addicts are ruining their moods for no reason.
4. When you check email constantly, you block your flow
You and I also call it "getting into the zone." Researchers have found that reaching a state of flow can enhance work performance — it's the best way to finish tasks efficiently. Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi says:
"[Flow] is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."
Unfortunately, it's difficult to see how anyone is reaching the necessary flow state in order to get complex work done. We are distracted by our inboxes far more often than we realize. Participants in a Renaud et al. study (2006) reported they thought they only checked their email, on average, once an hour. However, when the researchers spied on them, they saw that participants were actually checking their email nearly every five minutes. This jumping from task to inbox throughout the day requires the brain to readjust over and over to the new point of focus.
We're disrupting our own work on a regular basis — without even realizing it!
The Psychology Behind Why We're Hooked
To fix the problem, we need to understand what's going on in our brain. Why are we so obsessed with our inboxes? There are a few theories out there:
1. Operant conditioning
The most prevalent theory behind why we constantly visit our inbox, even when we know we're unlikely to have anything new, is operant conditioning. More specifically, variable interval schedules of reinforcement. Operant conditioning is a well-known psychology concept, defined as a type of learning that molds your behavior by training you to expect specific consequences after specific actions. Variable interval schedules of reinforcement mean that the action is rewarded when you do it, but not every time, and at inconsistent intervals. It's a perfectly normal way for humans to learn; it only becomes a problem when the learned behavior is counterproductive to our work.
In relation to email, variable interval operant condition plays out like this: When you check your email, you are expecting that you will get a new message. You don't get one every time, so you keep coming back, subconsciously hoping that "this time I'll have a new email!" And then you hit refresh, even repeatedly within the span of just a few seconds, waiting for your behavior (the act of checking) to be rewarded (a new email).
What's more, Nir Eyal, the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and long-time student of the intersection between psychology, technology, and business, says that just the simple act of responding to an email reinforces our behavior to come back and check again:
"Every time I reply to an email, I'm loading the next trigger because I'm likely to get a response. That response is an external trigger prompting me through the hook once again. And that's why email is such a hard habit to break." (13:10)
In the long run, if you keep getting worthwhile emails periodically, your behavior is reinforced and you'll keep checking ad infinitum.
2. Getting important email soothes our ego
Another theory points the cause of our email addictions to the individual's sense of importance. Even though we claim to hate email, some of us love the feeling of getting email. Linda Stone, writer, consultant, and tech researcher, says that keeping tabs on our email feels like a good thing because important work emails make us feel needed. Being asked for our opinion or our effort validates our role and how we're spending our time. This makes it doubly hard to ignore the incoming email — by human nature, we crave that validation. Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, says:
"If you think about [...] the internal trigger to check email, well, there're plenty: there's boredom, there's anxiety, there's insecurity about what I'm doing in my job. All of these internal triggers can be satiated a little bit by checking our email." (11:22)
But the constant checking and interruption is getting out of control. The challenge we face with email is to not let it drag us to extremes, where we subconsciously feel the need to look at our inbox and see if someone needs us yet.
3. We love those easy, small wins
One last theory. A study by Theresa Amabile of Harvard Business School on how to motivate the workforce made this conclusion: People love making progress. When employees feel that progress has been made, it catalyzes their motivation to keep working in order to reach the end goal. Progress — even just a small step forward — occurred on many of the days people reported being in a good mood during the study. In their report, Amabile and her team suggest that managers should break up large projects into several small, easier-to-reach goals so that teams can experience multiple "small wins" instead of just the one large win at the very end of a project.
Managing our email gives us that empowering feeling of accomplishment. Every time we respond to a message, that's one small step forward. Every time we reach inbox zero, we've successfully completed the task we set out to do. It makes us feel good to know we've gotten something done. So we keep coming back to do it again and again — even if it means procrastinating on real work; even if it means we waste hours every day trying to get back into the zone.
How to Detox from Your Inbox
Checking email throughout the day is a conditioned behavior that is draining our energy, happiness, and productivity at work. Here are a few suggestions to help you kick the habit:
1. Keep your inbox closed, and be conscious of how often you open it
Don't keep your inbox open in a different tab on your screen, and try to limit the number of times you check in. If you feel you need to peruse your email, then you can open your inbox at that moment. In the same email-stress study at the University of British Columbia mentioned above, the researchers concluded thus:
"Limiting the number of times people checked their email per day lessened tension during a particularly important activity and lowered overall day-to-day stress. [...] Those who checked their email a lot also didn't perceive themselves as any more productive than those who were on an email diet."Actively keep track of how many times you check your email each day. Psychologist James Claiborn says, "Measurement of anything tends to change it and makes people much more aware in the first place." Note whether or not every check-in was warranted. (Did you actually get any new, important emails since your last check-in?) If you notice the number of times you open that tab is reaching double-digits, reevaluate your behavior to see if you really need to visit your inbox so often.
2. Shift more work communication outside of email
Concerned about letting go of email when it's the only way to get important messages? Replace email with a new tool that won't bog you down with spam and unimportant pings. Shift more of your work to a Work Management tool like Wrike (or the others out there), so you become less dependent on using email for communicating about projects or tasks, for storing information and for getting updates from other people.
3. Set a goal to limit email (and write it down)
Did you know that if you write down your goal and share it with a friend, you are 33% more likely to achieve that goal? Grab a pen and notepad. Now write down your game plan: "I will only check email at 11 A.M. and 3 P.M.," or, "I will only check email 3x per day." Maybe slap a reminder sticky note on your laptop. Also write a list (on actual paper!) of the reasons you want to stop checking your email so often: "I want to regain hours of my work day," or, "I want to work more efficiently."
Once you've done that, let your boss and colleagues know that you've created this goal for yourself, so they're aware that email is not the best way to reach you with urgent problems. (Who knows, you may even inspire them to start their own detox plan.)
4. Take it to the extreme: block your inbox
Really want to reinforce your new habit? Download a browser extension like StayFocusd for the Chrome browser to make it literally impossible to waste more than a set amount of time in your inbox each day. You determine how many minutes you're allowed to spend in your email client on your browser, and after that time limit is up, you'll be blocked until tomorrow. Of course, this only works for people without access to their email in desktop apps like Outlook or Apple Mail.
5. Don't give up
Building a new habit can take more than two months to ingrain, and even up to two-thirds of a year! In our case, the new habit you're trying to build is to break an old habit, which is markedly more difficult. But don't let that stop you. If only checking your email a few times a day still makes you anxious a month from now, keep at it. Look at your list of reasons you need to stop checking email so often, and reaffirm your goals. Creating any new habit is mostly willpower, so even if you slip today, try again tomorrow.
You Can Break the Email Habit
Is checking your email an addiction? Have you taken any steps to successfully curb the inbox habit? Share your secrets in the comments so we can learn from you.