Why you need to take control of email

Entrepreneur Louise Chunn spent a fortnight in Silicon Valley

With the average person checking email 77 times a day, Louise Chunn, the founder of welldoing.org and former editor of Psychologies, In Style and Good Housekeeping, says it’s time to rein in our habit…

Email: don’t you just hate it? Having started as a convenient, trackable way of communicating with people individually or in groups, it has mushroomed into a daily battle that businesspeople all over the world wage with their devices. The average person checks email 77 times a day, sends and receives more than 122 email messages a day and spends nearly a third of their working week managing a never-ending torrent of email. And, since the advent of the smartphone, it even interrupts their weekends, evenings and holidays.

The problems are many –  sheer volume, unwanted spam, constant interruption, huge trails of copies and reply-alls that seem designed primarily to guard senders’ backs – but one of the greatest is the unpredictability of it all. When you leave work in the evening, you cannot predict how great an impact the next day’s emails will have.

Before you can have any chance of freeing yourself from the tyranny of the inbox, you need to understand why at the same time as hating it, you love it too. In fact, most people absolutely cannot ignore a winking email. I’m doing it right now (having committed not to read a single one while I write this column). But why does it just make me feel so utterly antsy and uncomfortable?

According to Jocelyn K Glei, author of Unsubscribe, email activates a primal impulse in our brains to seek rewards.

As evidence she quotes a lab experiment from the 1930s by well-known psychologist BF Skinner. One group of rats, on a fixed schedule of reward, were given a food pellet when they pressed a lever, then on every 100th press they’d get another pellet. The other group, on a variable schedule, might get a pellet after 20 presses, or after 200. Yet which group were the most motivated? The variable lot; even when the pellets were removed altogether, they kept pressing and pressing, waiting for their reward. Does this sound familiar?

“It’s those random rewards – say, a message from a long-lost friend – mixed in with the mind-numbing update and irksome requests, that we find so addictive,” writes Glei. “They make us want to push the lever again and again and again, even when we have better things to do.”

The other thing that email excites in many of us is the urge to finish. Yes, the nirvana of the zero inbox. But email is a tool, not a task. Reading every last email, every day is, most analysts now agree, a waste of time that could be more productively used for running your business or talking to your team.

A man checks email on his phone while his laptop is open on the table

Economist Tim Harford’s new book Messy is devoted to wresting this “neat and tidy” idea out of our minds as a working day goal. “The truth is that getting organised is often a matter of soothing our anxieties – or the anxieties of tidy-minded colleagues. It can simply be an artful way of feeling busy while doing nothing terribly useful.”

But the fact remains that in the tidal wave of rubbish are essential pieces of information, advice and analysis. You can’t simply turn it off and expect the world to concur. There are, however, things you can do to help yourself build a better relationship with email.

  • Set aside specific times to read emails rather than responding to each and every notification, allowing it to interrupt concentrated spells of work
  • Create VIP notifications for people whose emails you shouldn’t miss
  • Keep your email messages short and responses will often mimic your brevity
  • Don’t have dozens of email files – keep your subjects broad. You can usually word-search to find what you happen to be looking for anyway
  • Pick up the phone – it’s more personal and will often solve the problem more quickly and definitively

Try taming the email, and see how it feels for you. I’ll admit, I’ve found even this break hard. But I’ve now looked at my 25 unread emails – and there wasn’t a food pellet among them. Squeak!

Tim Harford is speaking at the IoD on 30 November. Click here for information and tickets


About author

Louise Chunn

Louise Chunn

Louise Chunn is the founder of Welldoing.org and former editor of Psychologies magazine

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