Finding Inbox freedom: Reclaim your health and productivity

How long do you think the average office email goes unread? Ten minutes? Five? The answer will surprise you….

In his book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, author Adam Alter makes a compelling case for why we should do our very best to limit email time during our workday. Consistent email checking ruins your productivity, increases your stress levels, and detracts from your overall sense of wellbeing.

Regarding productivity, Alter writes (with my emphasis added):

How long do you think the average office email goes unread? I guessed ten minutes. The truth is just six seconds. In reality, 70 percent of office emails are read within six seconds of arriving. Six seconds is less time than it’s taken you to read this paragraph so far, but it’s long enough for the average worker to disrupt whatever he’s doing to open his email program and click on the incoming email. This is hugely disruptive: by one estimate, it takes up to twenty-five minutes to become re-immersed in an interrupted task. If you open just twenty-five emails a day, evenly spaced across the day, you’ll spend literally no time in the zone of maximum productivity.

Frequent email checking means you will spend entire days, weeks, months or years not really getting much done, or getting less done slower and less efficiently.

It’s also detrimental to your health and wellbeing. Alter cites a study of U.S. Army office workers who volunteered to go without email for a week:

In 2012, three researchers wanted to investigate what happens when you prevent office workers from using email for a few days, but they struggled to find volunteers. They approached dozens of office workers at a U.S. Army facility on the East Coast, but only thirteen were willing to participate in the study. The vast majority explained that they couldn’t bear the pain of sorting through hundreds of unanswered emails when the study ended. Inbox Zero never dies; it just grows angrier while you try to ignore it.

The researchers monitored the thirteen volunteers for eight days in total: three days as they continued using email as they usually did and then five days while they refrained from using email altogether. At first the volunteers felt disconnected from their workmates, but quickly took to walking around the office and using their desk phones. They also left the office more often, spending three times as long outside when they were forbidden from using email. Apparently email kept them shackled to their desks. They were also better workers, switching between tasks half as often, and spending longer on each task without distraction. Most important, though, they were healthier. When checking email, they were in a constant state of high alert; without email, their heart rates tended to vary more, rising in response to brief bursts of stress, but falling again when those stressors passed. With email, they were constantly on red alert.

When your body’s adrenal systems are constantly activated, you can’t relax enough to put your mind fully on any task at hand. You’ll likely also feel rushed and anxious and flustered about (not) getting things done.

How to loosen your grip on your Inbox

Instead of checking your inbox frequently, or pursuing the unrealistic goal of Inbox Zero, Alter suggests setting limits on checking email throughout the day. Here are some tips I’ve compiled to help you do that:

  • Disable email notifications on your computer/devices.
  • Check email at two or three set times in the workday, and limit the time you spend doing so.
  • Don’t check email right before lunch or breaks. (This avoids the temptation to skip breaks — including healthy socializing, outdoor time, brain breaks, etc. — to “catch up”.)
  • Send fewer emails yourself. Instead, call your coworkers or walk over to talk to them.
  • Likewise, encourage co-workers to call you or walk over to see you if they need to talk to you.
  • Put a green/red flip sign on your door or cubicle wall. If it’s green, people can come talk to you; if it’s red, they have to come back later.
  • Give up the idea of Inbox Zero. It’s not healthy and it’s not realistic. Chuck Klosterman wrote in The New York Times that emails are like zombies: you keep killing them but they just keep coming. Let the zombies wither away in their electronic world, while you keep healthy, vibrant and productive in the real world.

Here’s a example of how your workday could look using the guidelines above:

Work the morning without checking email. Take lunch. Check and deal with email after lunch for an hour to two hours max. Prioritize what’s there and make a list of the things you need to do based on incoming messages. Take written notes on things you need to do but didn’t get to during your email time. Stop when your time limit is up. If you still need to speak to people to resolve issues, call them or walk over to talk to them. Work the rest of the afternoon on tasks without checking email. Flip your door sign to red if you need uninterrupted time. Check your email again a half an hour before you leave the office and assess for new or amended priority items. Before you leave for the day, make a list of things that you want to work on in the morning, when you arrive to work uninterrupted until after lunch. Repeat!

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