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How our 269 billion emails a day have made us miserable

In his new book, “Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation,” Dan Schawbel explores the need to tame the scourge of email.

How our 269 billion emails a day have made us miserable
[Animation: audioundwerbung/istock; Tatiana Mezhenina/iStock; Mironov Konstantin/iStock]

Dan Schawbel’s new book, Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation, explores new global research on how email prevents workers from having the crucial face-to-face conversations that create a healthy, more engaging, and productive culture. It’s on sale today.

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We should all plead guilty of email addiction. It’s made us anxious, stressed, and miserable. Yet, email is the most common form of communication in every industry, department, and country.

Last year alone, the total number of business and consumer emails sent and received each day was 269 billion, and that’s projected to grow to 319.6 billion in the next three years. We also spend about 2.6 hours each day reading and answering them, which amounts to 27 days of email each year.

We ask and answer questions, manage projects, sell to customers, and even manage crises with our daily digital missives. And while the back and forth can make us feel connected, the more time we spend using it, the fewer face-to-face meetings we have. Email was built to make us more productive and bring us closer together, but our addiction to it has made us isolated and unhealthy.


Related: 6 steps to tame email overload


“It’s the most overused, misused, and inefficient way to communicate,” says Stephanie Bixler, the executive director of Technology Strategic Planning and Digital Strategy at Scholastic. “And it impacts me as it sucks up an enormous amount of time just sorting through and finding what matters vs. what does not. I barely get what I want to get accomplished, and I leave work unsatisfied.”

Simply avoiding email altogether is impossible, yet we can make changes in our behavior that can make our work lives more functional and productive.

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The email rebellion

Workers around the world are rebelling against email’s overreach into their personal lives, and both governments and companies are responding. In France, for instance, the Ministry of Labor enacted the “right to disconnect,” a law that permits employees to disconnect outside of office hours. Germany’s Daimler created a program entitled “Mail on Holiday,” that automatically deletes incoming emails when employees are on vacation. In America, Thrive Global, a company founded by Arianna Huffington, has a similar program around deleting emails on vacation.

In a global study by Future Workplace and Virgin Pulse, we asked over 2,000 managers and employees about the technology they are increasingly dependent on when communicating, and almost half said email, compared to 15% who said text messaging and 12% instant messaging.

Over a third of respondents said they are relying on email in place of face-to-face communication with their teammates. As a result of this behavior, they admit they feel lonely and disengaged despite needing social connection. And, over a third said more face-time would save time from multiple back-and-forth email messages. A separate study found that one face-to-face meeting is the equivalent of 34 back-and-forth email exchanges. A single side conversation can eliminate the frustration and tediousness of sending multiple emails.


Related: How your email habits make you a worse boss


Email creates the illusion that we’re highly productive because we can multitask and “reply-all,” yet it can create a continuous cycle where nothing gets accomplished. Researchers from the University of California at Irvine conducted an experiment where they eliminated email usage for five consecutive workdays for a group of 13 employees in one organization. The result showed that when workers stopped using email altogether, they were more focused and had reduced stress.

Workers describe their use of email as a “double-edge sword” in how it makes it possible to work remotely and gain freedom and flexibility, but at the cost of impeding on our personal lives. Dan Klamm, the director of alumni relations at Nielsen, commonly receives emails from his global company’s colleagues in other time zones between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.

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“When I first started working, I was responding to these emails as they came in,” said Klamm. “Then, I realized that I needed to get some clear boundaries for myself or I would be working around the clock!” Some of his boundaries include carrying a separate phone for work, not responding to email at night, and putting his phone on “do not disturb” between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.

Setting email boundaries

Like 80% of people, I’m guilty of checking my email when I first wake up. Instead of focusing on my priorities, I end up responding to other people’s requests for my attention. Other workers are more restrained and vocal about their email boundaries.

“I never check my email first thing in the morning. It sets me up in ‘reactive’ mode for the day, whether I realize it or not,” says Carly Charlson, senior manager of public relations at Best Buy.

You have to set your own boundaries and manage email in the way that works best for you. When you’re always ‘”on,” are you ever truly “on”? Our overuse, and misuse, of email has made us miserable, less productive, and more stressed out. For the time being, email is at the core of our work culture, but as new collaborative technologies gain widespread adoption, our ability to pick and choose what to use–and when–will become more important. It’s time to use email to bring us closer together, set boundaries between work and life and not let it get the best of us.

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