Productivity experts have long recommended limiting the number of times you check email, and researchers from the University of British Columbia recently provided a scientific reason as to why.
In a two-week experiment, they asked one group of adults to check their inbox three times a day for a week and another group to check as often as they could. The next week, the instructions for groups were reversed. During the study, participants answered questions about stress levels, and the results weren’t that surprising: Those who checked their email less often felt less stressed.
So why do email and stress go hand in hand? “Email increases multitasking, thus fragmenting our attention and contributing to our feeling that there is so much to do and not enough time to do it,” says Kostadin Kushlev, the study’s lead author. “A large amount of research shows that multitasking actually impairs performance and productivity by slowing people down and depleting their cognitive resources.”
Email also causes stress because it’s a never-ending to-do list, says Kushlev. “So when you are in the middle of a task that needs to be done as soon as possible and you check your email to find out that 10 more people are awaiting your reply as soon as possible, you might feel overwhelmed,” he says.
But we keep checking it, and the reason might surprise you. “Multitasking often feels exciting, and we may feel like we are getting a lot done,” says Kushlev. “It is easy to see how switching between email, writing something, and researching stuff on Google, while also occasionally talking to a colleague might give us the feeling that there is a lot we are doing. But this subjective feeling is an illusion.”
Unfortunately, the multitasking habit is a difficult one to break because focus requires effort and self-control while switching from task to task does not, says Kushlev.
“We are used to being constantly stimulated by something,” he says. “Email could provide a somewhat more guilt-free way to get our fix of stimulation by allowing us to engage in another work-related task.”
Checking email less often reduces stress, but changing the behavior can be uncomfortable at first. Most participants in Kushlev’s study reported that it felt difficult to check email only a few times a day. “This is what makes our obvious-in-hindsight findings so striking: People find it difficult to resist the temptation of checking email, and yet resisting this temptation reduces their stress,” he says.
But the process is worth it. Higher levels of stress are related to a decrease in happiness and an increase in negative feelings, says Kushlev. “While we did not show any direct effect of our one-week intervention on emotional well-being, the findings suggest that reducing the frequency of checking email may have downstream consequences for emotional well-being,” he says.
And employers may want to take note as research has shown that stress impacts health and job burnout. “Organizations may benefit from encouraging their workers to check their email less frequently because of the lost productivity due to sick days and lost employees,” Kushlev says.
“In fact, the effect of checking email less frequently on stress was about as large as the documented effect of relaxation training at work, such as slow breathing and peaceful imagery. It is actually quite a significant finding.”