Is Using Email Wrong Killing Your Workday?

If you work in an office, it’s likely you’ve had days when you couldn’t get anything done. Sometimes, working with other people can be too distracting. But we’re also distracting ourselves. And it’s partially the way most Americans use email that’s to blame.

That’s the argument behind the research and writing of Celeste Headlee, a journalist who turned her professional sights on something that began plaguing her as she took on more work as an author and speaker.

“As I got busier and busier and busier, some of the habits I thought were working for me, were not working for me,” said Headlee, author of “We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter.” “In many ways, the habits I had that I had intentionally acquired to make myself as efficient as possible, it became clear they were doing the opposite of that for me.”

That included email habits, she said, like being constantly reachable and having her notifications on so she was aware of every single message that came through.

Illustration of people on different devices. Using email wrong pbs rewire
Checking email less can lower stress, helping you feel better and making you better at your job.

As you can imagine, Headlee wasn’t alone in that. According to a 2017 survey of Americans by Fluent, most email users check it several times a day. More than a quarter of millennials read emails as they come in, because of notifications. And three-quarters of U.S. workers reply to an email within one hour during work hours, according to a 2013 survey by Opinion Matters. Almost one-third replies within 15 minutes.

Even when we’re not at work, work email dominates many of our lives. In the same Opinion Matters survey, 81 percent said they check it on weekends, more than half check after 11 p.m. and nearly 60 percent keep up with it on vacation.

But, Headlee said, being reachable by email hasn’t been proven to make us any better at what we do. In fact, the opposite is true.

“A whole bunch of habits, a whole bunch of systems we have in place that are designed to make us more efficient and more productive are making us sick, are making us miserable, and, in the end, they’re making us less productive,” she said.

You, interrupted

Researchers Kostadin Kushlev and Elizabeth W. Dunn wrote in a paper on email and stress that “people often manage their email by attending to their inbox frequently, thus resulting in frequent interruptions and switching between tasks.” That adds up—self-interruptions like this account for 40 percent of all interruptions at work, a study by Mary Czerwinski, Eric Horvitz and Susan Wilhite suggested.

These interruptions are also slowing us down. The U.S. ranks fifth on the list of the world’s most productive countries. Yet the average American worker puts in more hours than the average worker in the top four countries.

Headlee believes inefficient communication and being constantly connected is partially to blame.

“Many Americans don’t see a limit to the work hours,” she said. “If you leave work and you go home and you spend the rest of the night until you go to bed answering email, we don’t see that as a problem. You’ve been at work the whole time.”

Is it possible to unplug at work?

Checking email less can lower stress, helping you feel better and making you better at your job, Kushlev and Dunn’s study showed. But, with email as the main mode of communication in U.S. workplaces, and with a ballooning inbox a cause of stress for many people, is there a way to do it without losing your job or your mind?

Headlee says yes. She shared a few ways she’s been able to improve her work life by setting email rules for herself:

1. Use your words

We’re so used to email at work that “everything looks like an email to us,” Headlee said. But, in most cases, email is not the best way to communicate what you need to say.

In her opinion, these are the only situations in which email is your best choice:

  • When you need to send an attachment
  • When you need to send what would have been a long letter in the past
  • When you need to sort out logistics or delegate tasks
  • When you are doling out praise

In almost every other case, talking in person or over the phone is more efficient, because of “how quickly and efficiently the voice can transmit information to you,” Headlee said. Oftentimes, an email we write is clear to us, but not clear to the person receiving it.

“There’s a lot of things you can hear in a voice and see in a face,” she said. “How many times have you had a friend call you up and they say one word and you say, ‘What’s wrong?’ When you’re explaining a difficult concept and you’re looking at someone you can tell when they’re not getting it.

“There’s all this information that human beings are designed to convey in a very efficient way. Email just removes all of that meaning from what it is we’re trying to send.”

Before you start drafting a new email, Headlee suggests spending a few seconds thinking about whether it really is the best mode of communication for what you need to say. You might find that talking in person or picking up the phone is a far better idea.

2. Turn off notifications

You’ve probably heard this one before. But turning off email notifications (and all notifications) can help limit your distractions during the workday.

“What you don’t realize is your brain expends energy waiting to respond to a notification that an email is coming in,” Headlee said. “It’s sitting there like a runner at the starting gate ready and waiting to respond. … There’s only so much activity your brain can do and you’re expending some of it just waiting for an email to come in.”

It’s even more distracting if you feel like you need to respond right away.

“We pay a cognitive cost when we switch from one thing to another,” she said. If “your brain has just switched tasks, you’re going to lose 60 to 90 seconds in switch costs—multiply that by the number of times you do that per day, just to switch back and forth to see what email came in.”

3. Block dedicated email time, and stick to it

Etiquette expert Devoreaux Walton told Rewire in another story that you should choose to communicate via email if you want a response within a week. Otherwise, you should use a different method. So stop treating all emails like they’re do-or-die.

Instead of having your email client running the whole time you’re at work, keep it closed—except for two to three times during your workday that you’ve blocked as dedicated email checking time. Then hold yourself to your schedule.

“It’s alright if someone doesn’t get an answer for a couple hours, and they have a phone number to call you” in an emergency, Headlee said.

A lot of people have an irrational fear that they’ll miss something urgent at work and cause some kind of disaster. But “those emergencies are incredibly rare… and you’re still available, people can still contact you even when they can’t email you,” she said.

If you try this, make sure you have your notifications turned off: “it sends your brain into a fight or flight pattern when it sees that number” on your inbox icon rising, Headlee said.

4. Try an ‘untouchable day’

This is the advanced course. Headlee herself does not respond to emails or texts during one workday per week. Though she’s typically working on a computer, she logs out of social media.

Instead, people can reach her face-to-face or over the phone if they need to get in touch. She calls it her “untouchable day.”

“I began to realize how much time I was losing checking in on Facebook (and Twitter) every once in a while,” Headlee said. “I had to become intentional, I had to become aware, and not consume social media in the way you consume Doritos when you’re watching a movie.”

She realized she needed “to structure my work in order to fit my life, rather than the other way around.”

Setting this boundary has improved her life outside of just that one day a week, she said. She no longer experiences “the fear that clutches your heart when you leave the house and realize you’ve forgotten your cellphone” and “the rest of my days I’m more likely to find 10 minutes there, half an hour there where I can also unplug.

“It has freed me from that anxiety that I used to feel all the time about responding and checking in.”

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.