John Stepper, the Working Out Loud evangelist, recently posted a link back to something he wrote in 2013, where he collected some statistics about email, including that some people check their email 36 times an hour. This comes from some research done in 2006 by the universities of Glasgow and Paisley. I was interested in it because of my recently-completed social media fast; that didn’t include email but I’ve been thinking a lot about that too.
Why do we do it? Stepper suggests a number of reasons, but these stand out for me –
- Intermittent reinforcement. Checking email is akin to using a slot machine. Every so often, we get a good message so we keep checking in hopes of getting another one. I can recognise this in my own behaviour.
- Safety and protection – ‘just as we used to scan the savannah for danger, we feel the need to keep checking email just to make sure everything is okay.’
- the compelling nature of Inbox Zero, a practice intended to tame email but which can drive you to spend time on email that you may not have needed to. An example: I clear my inbox into tasks and reference and rubbish. OK. I look back an hour later and there are a few more. That’s OK, I can live with that. But if I look back and find dozens, I think ‘ If I don’t do something there will be even more soon and I’ll never have time to clear them.’ And I’m straight back into email processing until the Inbox is empty and I get my hit of satisfaction.
I recently realised that I’d completely misunderstood Inbox Zero anyway. I use Gmail filters and Sanebox to get a lot of stuff out of my Inbox and into certain folders for later. But I got so hooked on Inbox Zero as a driver that I took the goal to be not only to process the few that were left in my Inbox but also the ones in the @SaneLater and other folders created by Sanebox! I usually did that by selecting them all, unchecking a few and hitting Delete, but all the same it’s time and attention I didn’t need to give to those filtered folders.
The two most powerful successes I’ve had with email are:
- switching off all email notifications, on my phone as well as browser tabs; closing the Gmail tab when I’ve finished using it. In other words I don’t want to know that anyone has emailed me until I decide to find out. I started doing that when I was at the bank, and had a lot more email than I do now, and I swear by it
- postponing my morning email check. I now spend a couple of hours on my most important tasks before I look at Gmail, LinkedIn, Twitter or any of these things. Of course that involves a little preparation to make sure I can do the jobs without going into email, but I’ve managed it successfully for all of, well, a week so far!
What’s your relationship to email?