It was an ordinary Tuesday Night when everything went dark. For five million BlackBerry users, email turned eerily silent.
“I quit smoking twenty-eight years ago, and that was easier than being without my BlackBerry,” one sufferer told the The New York Times.
That was in 2007, predating iPhones, Kindles, and tablets. Since then, our culture of connectivity has only intensified email’s ability to dominate the workday—and the night and the weekend and everything in between.
If you’re in need of some email rehab, don’t despair. There are compelling reasons we succumb to the allure of email. And there are straightforward solutions for the most common pitfalls. The first step to rehabilitation is diagnosing the problem
No. 1 Diagnosis: ALWAYS PLUGGED IN
If you live in your inbox, you’re not alone. Consider these numbers:
- In 2012 the average worker sent and received 114 emails a day, spending 28 percent of the workweek managing email.
- 94 percent of respondents to a 2010 survey admitted to checking work email at night, and 78 percent copped to scrolling their inboxes in the bathroom.
- Perhaps most disturbing, nearly half of survey respondents admitted to traveling up to ten miles on vacation to check their email.
This always-on habit has dramatic consequences for office productivity and employee well-being.
According to research firm Basex, $588 billion in working hours is lost each year due to unnecessary interruptions, particularly email.
And once workers return to other tasks, email fosters a frantic work pace. In a 2012 study by UC Irvine and US Army researchers, people who read email switched between computer windows an average of thirty-seven times an hour—twice as often as those not using email. Emailers also experienced steady “high alert” heart rates, which are linked to the stress-related hormone cortisol.
WHY WE DO IT
Most of us don’t need harrowing stats to know that constantly checking email isn’t healthy. So what keeps us going back for more?
The answer is both cultural and psychological.
“Corporate culture expects that people stay on top of email,” says Richard Morrell, who earned an MBA from the Marriott School in 1996 and now works as regional vice president of finance for Time Warner Cable. “I think many people believe it impresses others when they send out emails that could very well have waited until business hours. We all get to see how busy and dedicated they are, and the more people they copy, the more they impress. Then others feel obligated to respond in kind.”
Leslie Perlow, author of Sleeping with Your Smartphone, calls it the “cycle of responsiveness,” where our own actions amplify the pressure to be “on.” The more people make themselves available, the more requests flow in.
Perlow says this cycle “undermines the way we work, making us less efficient and effective. It also means we have little control over our lives.”
On top of that, email takes advantage of how our brains work, says Tom Stafford, a lecturer in psychology and cognitive science at the University of Sheffield and co-author of Mind Hacks: Tips & Tools for Using Your Brain.
One contributing factor is the law of effect. If a behavior is accompanied by a reward, an animal is more likely to repeat the behavior. Email may seem like an odd parallel for food given to lab mice, but for humans, an email can be a reward, providing necessary or interesting information—and even satisfying a basic yearning for connection.
But rewards don’t have to be consistent to work.
“The most effective approach is to give an animal a reward at random intervals,” Stafford says. “Animals trained like this take longer to give up once all rewards for the behavior are removed.”
In this way, email is a lot like gambling. Everyone knows high rollers rarely win big and most emails are mundane. But some messages are exciting—whether it’s a greeting from a friend, a client accepting an offer, or crucial information from a coworker. It’s impossible to know when the jackpot will arrive, but in the hope that it does, we’re compelled to keep checking.
THE SOLUTION: Schedule predictable time off
Choose a time when each team member can be completely off—no emails, phone calls, or texts. To ensure at least some team members are available for clients, alternate evenings.
Another defense is batching. By limiting email to predetermined times, such as an hour before lunch and again at 4 p.m., you can temper the thrill—and distraction—of new messages.
Spread the news about your bold new approach with an explanation in an auto-response or in your email signature. Try something like this:
In an effort to increase productivity, I am currently checking and responding to email from 11 a.m.–12 p.m. and 4–5 p.m. (EST) on weekdays. If you need urgent assistance, please call me at ###-###-####.
It may be nerve racking to think about how colleagues and clients might react to the change. Make sure to pitch it as a productivity gain, particularly for your boss. If she or he is hesitant, propose a test run.
“I was initially terrified of missing important requests and inviting disaster,” Timothy Ferriss explains in his best-selling book, The 4-Hour Workweek. “Then nothing happened.”
Even if you feel obligated to respond frequently, simply switching from checking email whenever a new message arrives to once every thirty minutes will offer some relief.
No. 2 Diagnosis: THE WRONG TOOL
Email is quick, free, and easy, but sometimes it’s simply not the best tool.
For collaboration and negotiation, email doesn’t provide the needed connection. According to recent research, people who interact via email are less cooperative than people who interact face-to-face. Results improve when an email exchange is preceded by a brief phone conversation.
Email is also ill suited for emotionally charged topics, such as disagreements or criticism, and sensitive information. Like anything online, you never know when someone will click “Forward.”
NYU students learned that lesson the hard way in last year’s “Reply-Allpocalypse,” when a sophomore accidentally hit “Reply All” to an ordinary email reminder. Because the listserv was outdated, that reply went to forty thousand students. It didn’t take long for coeds to take advantage of the glitch. Over the next twenty-four hours, inboxes were flooded with emails, ranging from the conversational (“So, how is everyone today?”) to the annoyed (“This is not funny.”) to the downright creative (“Would you rather fight one hundred duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?”. NYU quickly updated its listserv.
WHY WE DO IT
What makes email great is also what leads us to use it when we shouldn’t.
“Email shows just how much we love new information and social contact,” Stafford explains. “We’re gregarious creatures, and email takes advantage of that, adding a layer of ease and immediacy that isn’t possible with most kinds of communication.”
At the same time it connects us, email offers a sense of distance that makes us feel safer saying things we would avoid face-to-face. Several studies have shown that people evaluate their colleagues more negatively and lie more often when using email rather than pen and paper.
The catch is that emails still have real-world consequences. If you’re trying to settle a disagreement, email may seem like a good way to dodge confrontation. But because you’re more prone to be blunt and the recipient could misinterpret the message, that initial ease will likely be overshadowed by the escalating tension you wanted to avoid.
THE SOLUTION: Realize that email isn’t always best
“It’s a cold medium that lacks nuance,” says Elizabeth Danzinger, author of Get to the Point! “We have become over-reliant on email at the expense of the more personal touch of telephone and face-to-face conversations.”
Not sure when to use email—or not? Take a look at the flowchart above.
No. 3 Diagnosis: COMMUNICATION FAILURE
Egregious emails are generally avoidable with a dose of common sense and courtesy. Chain emails and messages riddled with typos, ROFLs, and BTWs should always be avoided.
More subtle, yet just as frustrating, are ineptly composed messages. Ambiguity is particularly a problem because emails lack nonverbal cues, such as gestures and intona-tion. Vague, rambling messages confuse recipients and may lead to resentment and an inbox pileup.
And that’s not all. A bad reputation for email can impact the rest of your work, says Brittany Riggs, a 2011 Marriott School graduate and HR management associate for Citigroup.
“I’ve been in quite a few meetings where we talk about potential promotions for employees, and one of the top things we look for is how well they can communicate, particularly with email,” she says. “It may seem like a small thing, but it can make a big difference.”
WHY WE DO IT
The nature of the medium encourages carelessness. Because messages aren’t tangible, they feel less permanent than, say, a printed letter. In reality, an email has a longer shelf life since it’s easy to archive and instantly shareable.
And because email facilitates quick back-and-forth, it feels more conversational and casual than other business communications.
THE SOLUTION : Approach email as if you’re writing a novel
The average number of words individuals email annually is somewhere between The Old Man and the Sea and The Great Gatsby. Of course, novel quantity doesn’t equal novel quality. It takes line-by-line attention to craft emails that read like a page-turner.
1. SUBJECT LINE
The subject line is your chance to get your message opened. While cheeky phrases may work for marketing campaigns, your chief concerns should be conveying your point and being specific.
To ask a question: “Lunch tomorrow at 1?” (not: “Lunch tomorrow”)
To make a request: “Your review needed by 3 p.m. today” (not: “Sales report draft”)
To share information: “Dept. meeting moved to Conf. Room 2” (not: “Dept. meeting moved”)
Email may be less formal than a letter, but a salutation is still a staple. “Dropping the greeting is fine once an email turns into a back-and-forth conversation,” says Danzinger, “but for an initial contact, a ‘Dear,’ ‘Hello,’ or ‘Good Morning’ indicates the sender is talking to another human being.”
Each message should have a clear purpose. Ask yourself, “What is my desired outcome?” Convey your purpose early, particularly if you are requesting an action. If you have lengthy details, consider summarizing the main points and covering the rest in an attachment. And, of course, always proofread before sending. Any typos will distract from your message and damage your credibility.
Your signature should include your full name, organization name, phone number, and email address. It may include other information, but hold the Gandhi quotes. “Use your emails to convey professionalism, not poetry,” cautions April Callis, an organizational development consultant.
Find yourself forgetting attachments? Both Gmail and Outlook offer options that detect any mention of attachments and remind you to include them.
LIFE BEYOND EMAIL
Working to manage email effectively—by setting boundaries, thoughtfully composing messages, and using email only when it’s the best tool—comes with its challenges. But conquering the constant pull of email does have its benefits.
You may feel what Perlow describes: “Control, relief, delight, a sense of empowerment. As one consultant noted, ‘I have a new spring in my step.’”
They’ve learned the ultimate lesson of email rehab: the less time you spend muddling through your inbox, the more time you’ll have to tackle the important tasks—and enjoy your work and your life.
Article written by Holly Munson
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Holly Munson is a writer, editor, and content strategist. She graduated from BYU in 2010 and lives in Philadelphia with her husband, Dave.