Are You Addicted to Email?

One of the ideas that successful people and organizations act on is that the urgent should never supersede the important.

Email eroded this precept. Email and text messages can arrive from anyone, from anywhere, at any time (including the email note that notified you of this blog entry). Consequently there is always an excuse to avoid important work in order to delete, read, or answer the latest email.

Courtney Shea’s piece for the Globe and Mail highlights this issue:

Call it serendipity (or, if you’re a lame pun lover like me, you could call it serendipity): On the same day I embark on a challenge to stop checking my inbox five million times a day, I came across a just-released study that shows how taking a break from e-mail helps curb stress and increase productivity in the workplace.

Conducted by a team out of the University of California, Irvine, the study tracked a test group of employees who were cut off from e-mail and compared them to their frequent e-mail-checking equivalents. You guessed it: The group that wasn’t ruled by the almighty “you’ve-got-mail” chime was less stressed out and less distracted.

Okay. I finished writing two paragraphs – can I check my e-mail now?

This is the sort of semi-addiction I’ve been nursing for years. If you don’t spend the majority of your workday in front of a computer, that might sound crazy, but the fact that “e-mailers anonymous” groups have been around since the mid-nineties proves I’m far from alone.

Before starting this challenge, I paid attention to my habits and found that I typically refresh my home page – my e-mail account, obviously – with a frequency best described as cyber-blink speed. I wouldn’t say that I’m a particularly stressed out person, but distracted … okay, seriously, can I check my e-mail now?

One of the key recommendations of the U of C study, lead by informatics professor Gloria Mark, is something called batch e-mailing where an organization allows access to e-mail only once or twice a day to minimize distraction. I decided to implement this policy at my own organization of one, allowing myself one check around 10:30 a.m. and another around 3 pm. This meant no more smartphone stashed on my bedside table, no more falling asleep to the gentle bzzzzzt of incoming messages, no more waking up to check a new message at 4:30 a.m. because Abercrombie and Fitch (a store I have never shopped at) is offering free shipping.

In my waking hours, I was like an alcoholic trying to rationalize why having “just this one drink” wouldn’t hurt anybody. You know, like, my entire career will probably implode if I don’t check to see if I’ve gotten a message from so and so. Another slightly disturbing realization is that when left to their own devices, my fingers will start typing http://www.roge… into the web address bar. I caught myself just before hitting enter several times.

To better understand this bizarre behaviour, I try to contact Prof. Mark. In keeping with my experiment, I do so by telephone, which is certainly not as convenient or cheap (she lives in California) as firing off a quick e-mail. It is also not nearly as effective. I start to feel like Lloyd Dobler leaving three increasingly stalker-ish sounding voice-mails.

Communication purists might say, “pick up a phone,” but why when the e-conversation is so enjoyable? Point is, by day three I was feeling incredibly isolated. I was also getting a lot more work done. The U of C study tracked productivity by installing spyware into its subject’s computers. Those with access to e-mail changed screens a whopping 37 times an hour. That means that, on average, they were never focused on the same thing for more than 1.6 minutes. Subjects cut off from e-mail changed screens half as frequently.

The issue of focus goes far beyond the workplace. In his book The Tyranny of E-mail, John Freeman talks about how when we are attached to our e-mail-rendering devices, we are only partially available to our kids/partners/friends/pets.