E-mail is an efficient way to communicate, but, truth be told, it can also be overwhelming. People fire off e-mails so fast that messages often pop into our in-boxes every few seconds. And the urge to take care of them (either by responding to them, filing them or deleting them) is strong. In fact, a 2010 New York Times article humorously compared deleting e-mails to killing zombies—you get rid of them, but then more keep coming.
Attending to e-mails takes up a lot of precious time. But more importantly, the practice can sometimes negatively affect our mental health. It can make us feel stressed, as if we’re drowning in a sea of messages, as well as distracted, because the onslaught comes at us rapid-fire.
Could you reduce the amount of time that you spend checking e-mail? If so, what are the best ways to do that? And would doing so make you feel less scatterbrained and anxious? How great would that be?
To see whether busy professionals could survive—and even flourish—without e-mail, researchers at the University of California, Irvine, asked them to do something unrealistic and rather drastic. They asked 13 people from one office to turn off their work e-mail completely for five consecutive days. Before the big shutdown, researchers analyzed the participants during a normal workweek to see how they typically behaved.
Surprisingly for those of us who can’t imagine working without e-mail, participants responded well to the e-mail shutdown, said Gloria Mark, PhD, coauthor of the study and an informatics professor at the university. For instance, when they were without e-mail, subjects…
No one (including Dr. Mark) is suggesting that it would be a good idea to give up e-mail altogether for five straight days. After all, you might miss important, timely messages…or you might be working on a project that involves a large group of people from various offices (perhaps even various countries!) and a lack of e-mail might slow your ability to communicate …plus, you wouldn’t be able to receive electronic documents, such as attached documents and photos.
What Dr. Mark does suggest is that you try taking shorter, more realistic “e-mail vacations” each day, anywhere from one to four hours at a time. In other words, rather than keeping your e-mail program open continuously, open it and check your e-mail only at, say, 9:00 am, 11:00 am, 2:00 pm and 5:00 pm (in batches). That way, e-mails will feel less distracting, intrusive and overwhelming. The pile of messages in your in-box won’t stress you out—because you won’t see it.
Of course, if your boss or colleagues require or expect instant responses to e-mails, then check with them first to see whether blackout periods are workable. Be prepared for some knee-jerk resistance—in fact, you may even run into some resentment about the fact that you would no longer be waiting on pins and needles for every communication from your coworkers! Try explaining your reasoning to them in a way that won’t insult them…for example, say, “I’d like to do a trial run to see whether it improves my productivity. If something urgent comes up, I’d be sure to respond to any phone call immediately.”
At the very least, said Dr. Mark, try turning off your e-mail system’s pop-up notifications. For example, if a new window or an image of an envelope appears on your screen every time an e-mail lands in your in-box, there often are ways to make those disappear under “settings” or “preferences.” You may find that you’re less compelled to check your in-box constantly (and instead, simply check e-mail in between tasks) once those nonstop reminders are out of your life.
Source: Gloria Mark, PhD, professor of informatics, department of informatics, University of California, Irvine. The study was presented at the May 7, 2012 meeting of the Association for Computing Machinery in Austin, Texas.