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Proof That You Don’t Actually Need To Be Plugged In To Email All The Time

Email is a huge part of most people’s workflow, but there are ways to not let it control your day.

Proof That You Don’t Actually Need To Be Plugged In To Email All The Time
[Photo: Flickr user Leonardo Rizzi]

It’s no secret that we’re addicted to email. By one estimate we spend an average of 650 hours on email a year.

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Studies have shown that email makes us more stressed out and less productive.

So last week we challenged ourselves to drastically cut back on email and check it only twice a day to see if it would make us more productive, focused, and calm.

The twice a day number came from a slew of time management experts including Fast Company writer Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think , who conducted this challenge months ago. They contend that most emails aren’t as pressing as we think they are and our need to be constantly connected and responding is detrimental to our productivity and emotional state.

As we suspected, only checking our emails twice a day made us a little twitchy–our digital addictions are real, people!

But in the end, we did find some benefits to being less connected. Here are a few of our observations:

Isolation Hurts

One neuroscientist from the University of Chicago contends that our perception of isolation is really quite bad for us. It can make us more stressed out, weaker, sicker, fatter, more fatigued during the day . . . the list goes on.

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“I work remotely from Austin, so anything I can do to not feel isolated is good for me,” says Fast Company Copy Editor David Penick.

Without email, some of us started to feel a little disconnected from the world.

“For the first couple of days I honestly felt a bit lonely as a result of not checking email as often,” says Fast Company Executive Editor Noah Robischon. “Sad but true: I was pining for my inbox. A sure sign of addiction, I think.”

But this challenge also forced us to think outside of exhausting email chains, which we found to be a good thing. Robischon explains:

One side effect is that I spent more time talking on the phone. Knowing that I would not be able to follow up as quickly as usual via email, I instead told people to call me or that I would call them. Net result: More time talking to humans in real time.

Expectations Affect Productivity

One study from the University of California at Irving found workers who went without email for five days felt more in control of their working lives. Not everyone participating in last week’s challenge, however, had the same experience. In fact, most didn’t.

Email has become an integral part of most people’s workflow, and a number of problems arose from people’s expectations that we’re available by email all day.

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Fast Company Senior Editor Anjali Mullany didn’t participate in last week’s challenge but still felt the effects. She pointed out that these challenges can be very disruptive for our colleagues.

“This challenge might make sense for some businesses, but in a newsroom, where we are responding to news and events all day long in near real-time? This experiment made no sense to me,” Mullany says. “And it caused real problems and miscommunications, including one with Noah earlier this week…because he wasn’t reading his email.”

Leadership Editor Kathleen Davis’s experience sums up this expectation well:

Other people’s email anxiety became really evident. Emails I was sent got forwarded to other people with the message, “I didn’t hear back from Kate, so I don’t know if she’s still there.”

While the idea of the challenge to cut out distractions and be more productive with our time is great, putting out fires caused by the challenge made no sense.

Also, when one of your primary responsibilities is reading contributor submissions sent by email, as is the case for me, it seems pretty counterintuitive not being able to do your job because you are attempting to be more productive at your job.

Most of us cheated at some point during the week because of this.

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Focus Is Fickle

With this challenge I single-tasked easier. Usually, if I want to distract myself for a work task I don’t particularly want to do at that moment, I can justify taking a look at email, since that, too, is work related. But really, this is just a trumped up version of mindless web searching. It’s usually a fruitless distraction that cuts into my focus.

Even though the allure of opening Outlook was still in the back of my mind, over time I found myself better able to ignore this impulse and switch tasks less often.

And I’m not the only one who experienced this. During his “inbox hours” Robischon says he ignored phone calls and told people who stopped by that they should come back later. “All those little minutes I would use to habitually check email noticeably added up to time that I used doing something else during the day (even if that turned out to be spending more time on Twitter).”

We Need To Tame Our Inboxes

While Davis doesn’t foresee keeping up the habit in its truest form, she says she will start the habit of closing her inbox for distraction free stretches of work. And Penick even took the challenge to the next level by also cutting out checking his Twitter feed and Facebook all day long, which he feels reduced his stress.

Robischon suggests checking three times per day instead of just two. “That seems more realistic to me.”

With a set time limit, Robischon says he feels like a more efficient emailer. He didn’t set anything back to unread or leave it for later, he moved the things that needed to be followed up on to his to-do list, and he simply deleted the stuff he knew he wasn’t going to take care of.

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“I was more concentrated and less distracted than usual while clearing my inbox,” he says. “Knowing that I only had this precious hour to respond to all the messages made me really focus.”

I certainly agree with this notion. I’ve felt that my inbox was getting out of control for a while. I would skim my email frequently to see if there was anything super-urgent, but oftentimes I wound up looking at the same email several times because it wasn’t pressing enough to deal with at that moment, but it still needed a response. Having email haunt me all day was distracting.

By dedicating specific time for email twice a day and closing down Outlook for the rest of the time, I was able to take back control of my day. It was also nice to not have a ton of stuff waiting for me at the end of the day.

Former Fast Company Web Producer Cia Bernales cuts back her email addiction by not checking either work or personal email after 6:30 p.m. until 9 a.m. the next morning. On weekends she unplugs from email completely and communicates with friends via text messaging. “If I get an invitation via email over the weekend, then I missed out. But I found out later that I REALLY didn’t miss out on a lot,” she says.

She takes this idea to the extreme by deleting all her email when she gets back from vacation. She believes that if it were an email about something important, the topic would surely come up again when she gets back in the office. “It’s really OK. No one has died because of it. And that’s what you have to think: we’re not that special,” Bernales says.

For more on this subject, check out the transcript from our live chat last Friday.

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Don’t forget to check out this week’s habit challenge of ending each day with reflections on our accomplishments and join in our live chat this Friday at 11 a.m. ET.

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About the author

Rachel Gillett is a former editorial assistant for FastCompany.com’s Leadership section. Her work has been featured on PopPhoto.com, AOL.com, and elsewhere

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