How badly would your career crumble if you simply quit email for a week? If the results of one experiment are any indication, the answer is not at all. In fact, your office life would improve. You’d be happier. You’d talk face-to-face with people more often. Your stress might even decrease. What about digging out of your inbox at the end of this little email-quitting experiment? It wouldn’t be nearly as bad as you might think.
Stephen Voida is an assistant professor in Information Science at University of Colorado at Boulder, and one of the researchers of a study in which 13 office workers quit email for five workdays. “People were much happier when they weren’t having to deal with their email all the time,” he explains.
The 13 employees, each from a different team, signed up to be email-quitting guinea pigs. They included both managers and non-managers. The experiment took place in a government research facility, which is notable because most research on email, multitasking, and personal information management takes place in academic institutions and Silicon Valley-like companies, where people are already tech-savvy, and perhaps more aware of their productivity habits than the average person. Government workers, however, represent a broader cross-section of the population.
The subjects were cut off from reading or sending new emails. Most of the participants expressed anxiety about how they’d keep up with their jobs without email, and how bad it would be to slog through the inbox once they resumed using it. Little did they know, they’d actually come out on top.
Before the study was in full swing, employees in the organization (not just the no-email group) wore heart rate monitors and had sensors put into their offices that collected information about their workday. How much time do they spend on a task before being interrupted? How often do they move around, and so forth? They also had a program installed on their computers that tracked how long they worked in a window, and how often they switched windows. All the information collected helped create a clear “before” picture of life in the office.
Then the group of 13 quit email, and several positive changes surfaced. First, the email quitters got out of their chairs a lot more, particularly the managers. When they needed to communicate with colleagues, they preferred face-to-face conversations over phone calls. In an age when people decry sitting as the new smoking, getting out of your chair more is a big deal.
Second, with email out of the picture, people task-switched less and focused on one thing at a time more. Some studies suggest that so-called deep work, or focusing on hard tasks without interruption, strengthens the skills that ultimately help people get promoted.
Third, “there was a measurable reduction in stress,” Voida says, referring to an increase in heart rate variability. However, “it’s a little bit of a confounding result, because there are so many things that can influence it,” such as caffeine and sleep. While more research is needed to confirm that giving up email reduces stress, it was anecdotally supported. In interviews, participants said they were happier and less anxious without it.
How did the email quitters cope with not seeing organization-wide information that was delivered by email? They heard about it through word of mouth, and they didn’t seem to lose anything by not receiving that information as quickly as everyone else.
After a week of no email comes the most dreaded part: digging out the inbox. “Re-engaging after you’ve been away on vacation or on a field site, or you’re choosing to be off email for a day, is a known problem,” Voida says. His subjects, however, were “pleasantly surprised” that it was faster and more efficient to batch-process emails after the fact than deal with them on an ongoing basis.
“They could sit down and bang through it quickly, because there was no notion that you had to respond to each one. You could take clusters of emails that had already expired past their relevancy and deal with them in bulk,” Voida says.
Interviews with one subject, a lab scientist, highlight the fact that some emails may not be as urgent as the sender makes them seem. Before he gave up email, people would email him tasks that needed to be done stat! When his email was cut off, people simply stopped assigning him tasks. They didn’t phone or find him in person. They just stopped. The scientist said that in hindsight, he believes the tasks either weren’t very important, or that the senders had instead taken the initiative to find information they needed on their own.
The implication is that email creates unique problems that aren’t inherent in other forms of office communication.
Email is a vicious cycle. In this particular office, before the study, email was seen as a constant interrupter of work. “An email would come in,” Voida explains, “and you’d have to drop everything you were doing to respond to it.” It wasn’t necessarily that the messages were urgent, but rather, “there was this culture where if you didn’t respond to an email quickly, you didn’t look like you were engaged or a team player.” And what happens when you send an email just to look like a team player? Someone else has to drop what she’s doing to reply to it. It’s the office version of the serpent eating its own tail.
Quitting email isn’t the dead end to a career that many people make it out to be. Not checking email for a day or even a few hours to get the most important tasks done could be better for your career, your productivity, and even your health.
Jill Duffy is a writer covering technology and productivity. She is the author of Get Organized: How to Clean Up Your Messy Digital Life.