Making Email Your Friend Again

What is your relationship like with your email? Do you check and check it throughout the day whenever you are bored or have a break? Do you check it every time you get a notification of a new message? Do you get stressed seeing how many unread messages are in your inbox? Many of us fall into at least some of these categories and none of them are helpful to your health. You deserve better… let’s do something about it.

What’s the Problem?

Though this is a topic worthy of a fuller discussion another day, it is important to know that multitasking is a myth. Our brains can, at best, do one mechanical (ingrained) task and one task that requires thinking at a time. When we are trying to work on a thinking task, any distraction pulls our attention out of this work and has us search out what it is to assess what to do with it. For general, background noise, some of us can get good at tuning things out, but the more attention that is required to work on the thinking task at hand, the more disruptive the interruption can be. It may take a bit of time to get back into focus and get work started again. Multiply this by repeated distractions and work can become quite untenable.

The dings, pop up messages and whatnot of email notifications are there to tell us that we have something new to look at and deal with in our inbox. And if decades of psychology have taught us anything, it is that we really like new things, and the unknown potential of what that new email could be can be quite irresistible. So, the fact that we are trying to get stuff done on a task that requires focussed attention and that there is the potential for an email to arrive at any time and notify us, which is super addictively stimulating, this is just a problem waiting to happen. Not only will every email notification break your flow of work, but the mere knowledge that there is a chance for an exciting distraction can also be enough to make it hard to stay on task. You might find that you start looking to see if something new is waiting for you.

What research is uncovering

The detrimental effects that this kind of repeated distraction is not mere conjecture or pop psychology babble. There is a growing body of research that points in the direction that when we have poor boundaries around when we check email, we can get more stressed and even start to exhibit inattention symptoms similar to ADHD. Comparing one group that was allowed to check their email as often as they wanted to one that only checked it three times per day, psychologists  Kostadin Kushlev and Elizabeth Dunn found that the group with no limits was significantly more stressed than the other.

There has been much more researched and written about this, but the point is clear: when we leave ourselves open to doing everything, we end up doing nothing. Our work productivity then looks more like a car spinning its wheels, which adds to frustration and stress.

What to do about it

The solution is pretty easy to say but may be harder to do: set limits on checking your email. Like any habit, if you are used to checking your email often it might take some time to get used to doing it differently. It is not overblown to refer to these behaviours as “addictions”. Like with all substance use and behavioural addictions, one will go through a period of withdrawal when they remove the object of addiction. So, be patient and easy on yourself. Your new habits of good boundaries and increased focus will start to feel more natural.

Here are a few tips to help you forge a healthier relationship with your email:

Set fixed times to check your email.

Instead of the take-it-as-it-comes approach, decide when you will make some time to dedicate to going through your email inbox. One recommendation is that if you are not willing to spend fifteen minutes processing and replying to email, then you should not do it at all. Try checking in the morning, at lunch and in the late afternoon or evening for a week and see how that experiment feels. You can check your email more or less frequently than that, but the point is to only do it at fixed times and for a predetermined duration. In other words, turn it into a task, not a distraction.

Turn off your email notifications.

Once you have a routine for when to check your mail, you need to turn off the tap of notifications. If you go into the settings on your smartphone, tablet or computer, you will find options to do this. You may even want to turn off the badge that shows the number of unread emails to further reduce any distractions and stress. Don’t worry, your email will be there when you check it. You are not stopping checking your email, you are just delaying the gratification of checking it willy-nilly and giving yourself dedicated time to spend on it.

Set up a mindful work environment to keep your focus.

I wrote much more thoroughly about this in a previous post, but the gist of it is to create a working space that is conducive to keeping you focused on the task you want to complete. If you set up a dedicated workspace that you only use for such tasks, you will also have the additional benefit of having your mind behaviourally get used to “shifting gears” to get ready to do that particular task you do in this space. This environmental and behavioural cue will make it easier to get and stay into the working mode you want to get things done.

Our technology has made it too easy for us to access pretty much any information we want anytime we want. This extreme freedom has led us to believe that we should be able to have access to everything, anytime, anywhere. This just is not healthy and our poor minds just can’t do it. Thinking that we can or should just leads to overload and stress and ultimately leaves us disengaged from the world around us and the other people we share it with.

Everything that was just said about email equally applies to texting and social media. Feel free to experiment with some new, healthier boundaries with your technology and see how you feel.

Now, turn off your device and go outside for a walk…

by Kurt Frost