Do you ever feel like you’re addicted to email? Do you find it impossible to ignore checking your inbox?
It’s not your fault.
In fact, you might be addicted to email and not even know it. I don’t want to scare you like WebMD. Your email addiction probably won’t kill you. But having an email addiction is a less productive, more stressful way to work.
Here are a few inbox junkie signs to look out for:
- you keep checking your email first thing in the morning and before you go to sleep
- whenever there’s a small window of time you’ll check if there are any new emails
- you check your email more than 3 times an hour
- you keep a browser tab or email client open at all times (and in the background)
If you recognize any of these, you might die. Just kidding. It might, though, mean that you’re addicted to email. I mean that on a physiological sense as if your body was craving email (just like an alcoholic would crave a drink).
You’re not alone. An Adobe Systems study has found that workers spend over 6.5 hours a day just checking for new emails.
Yes, 6.5 hours. Almost a whole working day. That’s just crazy when you think about and it’s because we all check email outside the office as well (as you can see in the graph.)
In fact, most of us probably spend more than half of our day on email. Whether it’s reading, checking, searching for or referring back to emails. A recent McKinsey Social Economic Report has found that the average knowledge worker spends almost 3/4 of their day on just email-related tasks.
So why is email so addicting? What has happened is that you might have conditioned yourself to seek pleasure from knowing you got an email.
Remember the good old days when receiving an email was actually fun? You might have gotten a personal email from your friend, spouse or your favorite company that was giving away free stuff.
Today that’s totally different. I don’t know anyone who now looks forward to checking their email. It’s a not-so-fun necessity for work and doing business.
But there lies the problem. Over time we’ve conditioned ourselves to keep checking email because sometimes we might get a reward for it. That “ding” notification might give us something we like, such as praise, an interesting article, an amazing deal, or an email from someone we haven’t talked to in a while. Sometimes it might give us something we don’t like (spam anyone?). The variable rewards trigger a seeking behavior that turns into a compulsive behavior.
Research has shown that email notifications trigger a dopamine hit in our brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that regulates movement, emotion, cognition, motivation, and feelings of pleasure.
Can you see where I’m going with this? When email notifications make that ding noise, it stimulates that system which rewards our natural behaviors, produces the euphoric effects and teaches them to repeat the behavior.
Our brains are wired to ensure that we will repeat life-sustaining activities by associating those activities with pleasure or reward. Whenever this reward circuit is activated, the brain notes that something important is happening that needs to be remembered, and teaches us to do it again and again, without thinking about it.
That’s what’s happening to our brains. You see this everywhere. How often do you check your phone? Why? Because of possible rewards and pleasure you get from text messages (and email). It’s the same with Facebook. No matter how much I understand this mechanism, I keep checking that damn red notification whenever I go to Facebook. Have you noticed the most random notifications on there? It’s because they want you to keep checking it and reinforce that loop.
Again, this is not your fault. Our bodies aren’t designed to handle email, text messages and Facebook notifications.
The reality is, the more notifications we get, the lower our productivity is. Each notification represents a loss of productivity. Did you know that…
- it takes about 25 minutes to refocus after an interruption
- on top of that, you need another 15 minutes to get back in “flow”
So each interruption represents a loss of 40 minutes.
That’s why I want to minimize my email notifications as much as possible. Each interruption makes me lose anywhere from 5 to 40 minutes. Considering that the average Asian Efficiency readers get 85 emails a day, that’s almost a whole day loss of productivity.
If you look at it how it affects you over a week, you lose over 30 hours of productivity. A recent study showed how the average financial services worker loses 3.9 workdays due to interruptions.
What’s scary is that it’ll only get worse. You think it’s bad now? Many studies have shown that we’re only going to get more emails, text messages, instant messages and other notifications in the future.
So if you’re struggling now, it’s probably best we do something about this before the problem gets worse.
What Can You Do About This?
While you may think checking your email throughout the day and replying to emails within minutes makes you the most productive person in the world, you’re really just slowing yourself down, as well as those around you.
There are several things you can do today. I’ll start with the harshest approach and end with a soft approach.
1. Turn Off Email Notifications
I know a lot of you will object to this and not do this. This is like taking coffee away from a coffee snob while you tell him that you don’t need coffee to be productive.
I get it. It seems impossible.
You might not do it, but I at least want you to know that this is the best option. Maybe not as the first step but something to strive for. The reason this is the best solution is that it immediately kills the dopamine trigger. No random notifications means no dopamine hits.
I know it sounds extreme. Do other people really have notifications turned off? Yes! I don’t have any email notifications turned on and I’m doing just fine running a successful business and having a fun social life. So do tons of other successful, productive people I know.
“But Thanh, I need to reply to people right away. It’s expected of me!”
If that’s you, setup the VIP email filter. That way you have the best of both worlds: you can still do deep work while at the same time quickly respond to people that matter to you.
2. Go from Push to Pull Notifications
The next tactic is to change the way you get notifications. By default all apps and email service providers have the push mechanism turned on which means that you’ll get notified as soon as a new arrives.
Ideally, you change this to having pull notifications which means you’ll get notifications when you want them.
How do you know if you have push or pull? The simplest example I can give you is the email app on your phone. If it automatically updates the number of unread emails and it notifies you of each new incoming email, that’s push. Having pull notifications would mean that you would have to open the email app and hit refresh to see what the new emails are.
Every email client is different and there’s no setting called “pull notifications.” What you want to do is turn off the “push notifications” which will automatically turn it into pull notifications. You now have to manually hit refresh to see the new emails.
If any of this sounds scary to you, then I want you to try another experiment that shows you how mindful and easy it is to get used to pull notifications. Pick a website that you visit multiple times a day such as Facebook, Reddit or ESPN. I’ll take FB as an example because I’ve done this myself with FB. If you’re like me, it’s very easy to just hit COMMAND+T to open a new tab, type in “f” and then hit Return so it loads facebook.com. This happens so much without any thinking its kind of scary to see how efficient I am doing it.
I realized it was an addiction because I wanted to see if anyone commented on a photo, liked my status update or tagged me somewhere. What I did to break that addiction was to logout of Facebook each time I was about to visit another website. So whichever site you picked, logout each time you stop using it.
What happens next is magical. Over time as you visit your site, it’ll force you to login. That extra step causes enough friction to make you realize that it’s really not that important. If you used a very difficult password where you have to use 1Password or LastPass to login twice, even better. Try it out and you’ll see yourself stop visiting those sites.
It’s the same with email. Once you stop push notifications you’ll see over time that it’s not a big deal to keep checking email. Again, this is a workaround of a true solution (turning it off completely and going pull all the way). But this baby step can make it easier for you to make that transition.
3. Delay the Notifications
If you like the idea of turning off push notifications but you still need to keep checking email frequently in the background, then another solution would be to delay the notifications you get.
This is especially for people who have the habit of keeping their email client open all day long.
What you do is turn off the push notifications but set your email client to automatically refresh every 30 minutes.
That way you have the peace of mind knowing that you can always get back to people within 30 minutes while at the same time give yourself more time and space to focus.
Over time change it to 45 minutes. Then an hour. Then completely turn it off.
This is more of a hack and a workaround rather than a true, systemic solution. But I want to give you options to eventually get to inbox nirvana.
4. Changing Your Mindset
The above 3 tactics are great quick solutions but the long-term solution is the mind shift you will make.
Right now you’re being dictated by others. The shift you want to make is to be the person who is in control of their time and attention.
When you truly see yourself as someone who dictates their own work, time and attention, you’ll see how turning off email notifications makes complete sense. This mindset will lead to other things you’ll do to “protect” yourself from distractions and interruptions.
I will say that making that shift won’t be easy and it’s not something that will happen overnight. It’ll be work in progress and I hope the 3 strategies above will help you get there.
Again, you want to view yourself as the person who is in control of their work, time and attention.
I hope by now you can see why email notifications are a productivity killer. There’s a balance between being responsive over email and being able to focus and do the best work possible. It’s not an easy transition but one you can make. The strategies outlined in this post will help you with that.
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