36 times an hour

We check email 36 times/hour

We check email 36 times/hour

“It’s terrible,” she said. “I can’t focus any more. I can’t even read a book.”

I was talking with a smart, successful woman who’s an investment analyst, and we were talking about how she works. The best times to do the deep thinking required for her work. How to avoid being overwhelmed by news, email, and interruptions.

As we spoke, she was looking at her Blackberry. I asked her, “Did you know people check email 36 times an hour?”

“My God,” she said. “I bet I’m worse.”

Why it’s important

I used to think that those who ranted about the evils of email were missing the point. It’s not email per se that’s the problem, I figured, but how people are using it. As people used more modern platforms, their email usage would naturally decline.

But I failed to see just how insidious email can be. And how, if people don’t change their email habits, they may not be able to develop other, more productive work habits.

Why is email so bad? Simply put, people spend too much of their day on email, use it to store knowledge which should be available to others but isn’t, and are interrupted by it throughout the day to the point of lowering their performance on other work.

Here are some statistics:

Of these, I find the last statistic is the most damning. There’s plenty of brain science that shows attention is a limited and precious resource. And that you expend that resource when you’re switching contexts. So if you’re constantly checking email, you simply have less capacity to pay attention and your performance degrades.

“Those distracted by incoming email and phone calls saw a 10-point fall in their IQ – more than twice that found in studies of the impact of smoking marijuana, said researchers…Those who are constantly breaking away from tasks to react to email or text messages suffer similar effects on the mind as losing a night’s sleep.”

But if it’s so bad, why do we do it?

Why we do it

Perhaps the simplest explanation for our email habits is the way we’re wired. For example, we seem to be designed to respond to intermittent reinforcements. 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.

Email can also be a source of issues and news that threaten us in some way. And so, 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.

And lastly, everyone else is doing it. So there’s social proof that checking your email in meetings, in elevators, while driving, and while crossing the street is not as harmful as we know it to be.

There are, of course, other reasons. Because it’s easy to mark progress as you process email (“Inbox zero!”), you get a sense of accomplishment from doing it. And because processing email feels like work, it’s an easy alternative to the much more difficult job of creating something of value.

What we can do

In understanding and changing my own email habits, the two books I’ve found the most useful are “Your Brain at Work” and “Manage Your Day-To-Day”. The first applies scientific research to motivate better ways of working. The second is a compendium of practices and perspectives from people as varied as Seth Godin, the designer Stefan Sagmeister, and the author Steve Pressfield.

These great resources have many good suggestions. Here are three to get you started:

  1. Turn off notifications. You already check email so often that you don’t need extra nudges to do so.
  2. Set boundaries. Check your email at scheduled times and work through it during those times as opposed to checking and processing throughout the day.
  3. Reserve distraction-free blocks of time. Schedule time in your calendar in which you don’t use email or other communications tools. Then use this time for your most demanding, creative work. (For many, this is in the morning when they first wake up. So the very common habit of checking email first thing in the morning is among the worst ways you can start your day.)

Yes, it’s just email. But controlling your email is an important steps towards mastering how you spend your time and attention, both of which are key to your effectiveness and fulfillment.

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
This entry was posted in Management, Self awareness and improvement and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to 36 times an hour

  1. I learned to turn off notifications a long time ago – it was a HUGE time saver and noticeably reduce stress.
    Now what to do about instant messenger… 😉

  2. Reblogged this on Houldsworth's Random Ramblings and commented:
    Is email killing you? Do you feel the urge to check email every waking moment? Read on…

  3. One of the first things I did at work was turning off the email notification. This little annoying pop-up window was really killing me. Because even if I didn’t took care of the email immediately, I was still pulled out of my thought. Now I check the emails when I am done with task A before I move on to task B.

  4. tanyalau says:

    Do you think people now behave similarly with social media (constantly checking facebook, twitter etc..). Presumably this has the same debiilitating effect on productivity…? Interested in your thoughts.

    • John Stepper says:

      Absolutely. Using social media is as bad if not worse given you can consume even more info more quickly.

      In “Manage Your Day-To-Day” you’ll find all sorts of people advise going silent (eg turning off your internet access) when you need to do focused work. I used to think that didn’t apply to me but I was wrong. Now, when I wake up and start working on the book, I don’t look at my phone and I turn off Internet access on my laptop before I start writing.

      I love Twitter, FB, reddit… But increasingly I don’t use them to fill the empty spaces in my day. Rather, I use the empty spaces to refresh my attention. And when I want to spend some quality social media time (like right now), I focus on that when I’m in a good place and it’s a good time to do it.

      • tanyalau says:

        Thanks John – good tips! I have seen similar advice on allocating specific times to check email – but yes – the same should apply to social media. Recognising how it negatively it impacts productivity – and then being disciplined enough to stick to the plan of staying focused is important. Disconnecting entirely from the internet and phone for a chunk of time sounds like a good idea. And – as you say – that way, the time you spend on email or social media is equally as focused as the time you’re spending on work, assignments, or whatever. Thanks John : )

  5. Marie-Louise Collard says:

    Great post John and reminder of how one should differentiate email interaction from focussed work and steps to find other forms of more collaborative communication.
    In fact limiting or trying to get rid of email may be the best thing you ever do in your day to day working life.
    All the reasons you give of why we do it are so true – though I would add to the list that it can feed a person’s need to “be connected” or “needed” at work. If they are getting plenty of email an illusion is created (mistakenly) that they are closer and more connected to their work world – and hence more “valued”. But like many addictions that sense of fulfilment is only temporary so they constantly need to return to it.
    as you say on its own it actually has the reverse effect because it prevents you doing anything of real value because it constantly interrupts.
    One action always astonishes me: why do colleagues bring their BBs to meetings (carefully placed beside them)? I have never known or would expect anyone to answer it or respond to email in the meeting. All I can reason is that the red flashing light serves to remind them that they are still connected and needed beyond the meeting room.
    To this day I have never taken a mobile phone to a meeting and especially not one that notifies me when I have email.

    As you so correctly point out – “it’s just email” – it can wait!

    Thank you

  6. John says:

    John – another thought provoking post. Thanks.

    I think part of the problem is the reader of the email is reacting to the expectation of the sender. I recall working when someone would drop by my office a few minutes after sending an email and begin discussing the issue in the email as if I had nothing else to do but wait for and respond to emails. As the recipient of email, we end up trying to please the sender by replying right away to illustrate our attention to the sender. As you point out, the day becomes a never ending session of reading and reacting and never taking time to sit, think and get other work accomplished. If we are not checking 36 times an hour we could miss something. If we were in the old days, before email, IM’ing etc, would we spend time waiting for the phone to ring or going to our postal mail box – probably not. Many managers think responding right away and having an empty mail box are signs of an efficient employee.

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