Don’t Let Email Zombies Eat Up Your Day

The next time you want to interrupt yourself for a quick glance at your inbox, don’t.

Let’s face it: Email is killing our productivity. The average person checks their inbox 11 times per hour, processes 122 messages a day, and spends 28 percent of their total workweek managing their inbox. Outside of work, more than 80% of workers monitor their email over the weekend, nearly 60% tend to their inboxes on vacation, and 6% admit to checking email while their wife was in labor or during a funeral. So much for life’s precious moments!

And for those of you who think that Slack is killing email, think again. Recent projections suggest that worldwide email usage will grow by 12% in the coming years. What’s more, it ain’t just the “olds” who are obsessed with email. It turns out that email addiction is more—rather than less—prevalent among the younger generation. One recent study found that millennials are more frequent users of email than any other age group: They are more likely check email from bed (70%), from the bathroom (57%), or—most disturbingly—while driving (27%).

Like some evil workplace zombie, email is literally sucking away our time, our attention, and our energy. Frustrated by its debilitating impact on our working lives, I spent a year delving into the science behind our email addiction for my new book, Unsubscribe. These are four of my favorite research-backed strategies for minimizing the time you spend on email and maximizing the hours you spend on meaningful work.

1. Check your email in “batches” for less stress and more happiness. 

There are two types of emailers: reactors, who rely on notifications and near-constant monitoring of their inboxes to nibble away at their email throughout the day, and batchers, who set aside specific chunks of time to power through their email, so they can ignore it the rest of the day. Not surprisingly, batchers are significantly more productive when it comes to getting shit done, and according to recent research, they’re also less stressed and more happy.

To get yourself into the groove of batching, try blocking out two to three daily email check-in times on your calendar, perhaps 30 minutes a piece. If at all possible, schedule an additional 45-90 minutes for creative work before you check your email for the first time. Then, when you do turn your attention to your inbox, no matter what you find there—what fires you have to put out, what unwanted questions you have to respond to—you’ve already gotten some good work done that day.

If at all possible, schedule an additional 45-90 minutes for creative work before you check your email for the first time.

2. Neutralize your “fear of missing out” by using VIP email notifications.

If you’d like to stick to specific blocks of time for checking email, but you have a special someone who will freak out if you don’t tend to their email within five minutes of receiving it—or if the whole idea of ignoring your inbox just makes you too anxious—compromise by using VIP notifications. On an iPhone, you can designate certain people as VIPs so their emails go to a separate VIP inbox. You can also configure your notifications to play a special tone when that inbox gets a message. If you have an Android phone, you can use the Gmail app to set up a similar system for notifications when messages arrive from designated “priority senders.”

And your VIPs don’t have to be fixed. I change mine regularly based on what projects have priority at the moment and what I’m feeling anxious about. If I notice I can’t stop peeking at my inbox because I want to know if I scored the dream apartment I just applied for, or I’m awaiting a time-sensitive reply from a client for a project that’s on deadline, then I just pop that person onto my VIP list. Now I no longer have to monitor my inbox like a maniac because I know I’ll be alerted as soon as the message arrives.

3. Boost your focus by closing your email when you’re doing other tasks.

Research has shown that just having your email program open in the background of your computer screen as you focus on another task, even if the window is minimized, can decrease performance. Even if your email isn’t front and center, your brain still knows it’s there in the background and devotes a certain amount of energy to monitoring it, which drains your focus for executing on the task at hand.

Avoid such distractions by quarantining your email in a separate area from your main workspace. This might mean setting up a separate monitor just for email or checking your email only on a mobile phone or tablet. Checking your email in a physically separate space can actually make your incoming messages—and any attendant anxiety or urgency—feel more distant and less pressing. The less cluttered your primary work screen is, the more serene your mind is, and the easier it is to focus.

Pro Tip: This advice about “quarantining” apps with constant push notifications also applies to Slack or other collaborative apps that emit constant notifications and updates. The tax on your attention is lower if you keep them running on a separate, glance-able screen nearby (or on your phone if a second screen isn’t an option) rather than on your primary computer screen. It sounds silly, but interruptions sabotage your short-term memory, so one of the problems that sets us back is literally remembering what we were just working on. If your primary screen is reserved for your primary task, rather than buried under a bunch of Slack and social media windows, you’re more likely to be able to return to it quickly after an interruption.

The less cluttered your primary work screen is, the more serene your mind is, and the easier it is to focus.

4. Know that multi-tasking with email reduces your IQ and your creativity.

Every time you stop doing a task you are working on to check your email, you incur what researchers call a “switching cost.” Particularly if you’re doing any kind of work that requires deep concentration (aka creative flow) such as writing, coding, or assembling a presentation, it typically takes at least 25 minutes to get properly back into the task after you’ve interrupted yourself. (I’m no great shakes at math, but I’m pretty sure that means if you check your email twice while doing an hour of creative work, you’ve basically gotten nowhere.) Another study done in the UK found that when people tried to juggle managing their inbox with doing their work, their IQ fell by 10 points—the equivalent of working without a night of sleep or smoking reefer on the job. So the next time you want to interrupt yourself for a quick glance at your inbox, remember that it could literally make you dumber.

This post is was originally published by 99U and is adapted from the book Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done, by Jocelyn K. Glei, the founding editor of 99U and author of Manage Your Day-to-Day. It’s available on Amazon now. 

Feature Illustration by Atipus.

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