It’s hard to find anyone who has anything good to say about email, even though — or maybe because — for knowledge workers, it takes up a good chunk of the workday.
How much? A McKinsey analysis, quoted in the Harvard Business Review, estimated that email takes up to 28 percent of the average professional’s time. Other sources — including a survey by Adobe — have put the figure even higher, at 50 percent.
But the problem with email is not just that it’s time-consuming. It also has negative effects on our attention, productivity, and emotions, according to Emma Seppälä, the science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, and co-director of the Yale College Emotional Intelligence Project at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.
Research shows that media multitasking — defined as constantly switching back and forth from email to text messaging to email — weakens our memories and concentration skills as well as our ability to filter out unnecessary information, Seppälä writes in The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success. And in one study, media multitasking was shown to have been associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety.
One of the reasons that email is so stressful, according to Seppälä, is that emails are stripped of their social cues. Communicating face-to-face is inherently more empathic and less stress-inducing because we adjust our response based on visible social cues, she wrote. When we receive dozens and dozens of emails a day, we struggle to interpret the emotions behind them. “In our email-less past, we would experience maybe one highly emotional event a day, or two or three at the most,” she wrote. Today, “an hour of email can take you through a huge range of emotions and stressors.”
We may receive positive communication in our email, but our brains are wired to be more influenced by negative input than they are by positive information, she wrote. “Is it any wonder that we come home feeling exhausted after a long day of doing nothing but sitting at our computers?”
It might sound easy enough to simply set parameters around our use of email. But digital distractions work in such a way to make staying on task not only exhausting, they operate against our brain’s impulses, writes Seppälä. We get a rush when we hear the “ping” that a new email or text has arrived, or see an alert pop up in our inbox. “We have a natural inclination,” she writes, “to shift our attention to things that are novel and new.”
We’re also up against the stress-inducing techniques that media and marketers use to get our attention, she wrote. Since our brains are wired to focus on negative or fearful stimuli, anyone who wants to get our attention knows how to assail us with these stressful stimuli. As a result, we live in a daily state of stress. No matter how aware we are of these messaging techniques, we all feel at least some of their stressful effects.
For businesses, “negative feedback is the bargain feedback,” writes Jaron Lanier, author of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. “Negative emotions such as fear and anger well up more easily and dwell in us longer than positive ones. It takes longer to build trust than to lose trust. Fight-or-flight responses occur in seconds while it can take hours to relax.” This is true in real life, Lanier writes, but even more so online.
Seppälä and others have recommended a range of practical steps you can take to keep email from overwhelming you, including weeding out unnecessary feeds and subscriptions, not opening email first thing in the morning, and setting expectations with others about how quickly you will respond.
But don’t “exert all the intensity you can muster and rely on your iron will to push through your work,” she writes, which can lead to exhaustion and burnout. Instead, she advises, find ways to cultivate calmness through meditation, breathing exercises, taking time out for a short walk, and other methods.
“Calm states,” Seppälä concludes, “are the key to effortless self-control. Staying calm helps you be present with the task in which you are engaged, making it easier to avoid distractions.”
Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.