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10 tips for avoiding the tyranny of email
We bet you can't even finish reading this story without checking your email once
 
Yeah, it's time to power down.
Yeah, it's time to power down. Courtesy Shutterstock

I've been giving a lot of thought to my habits recently and how they affect me. One thing I've placed an increasingly watchful eye on is email.

Email seems pervasive in our lives. We check email on the bus, we check it in the bath. We check it first thing in the morning. We even check it midconversation, with the belief that no one will notice.

John Freeman argues in The Tyranny of Email that the average office worker "sends and receives two hundred emails a day."

Email makes us reactive, as we race to keep up with the never-ending onslaught.

In the past, only a few professions — doctors, plumbers perhaps, emergency service technicians, prime ministers — required this kind of state of being constantly on call. Now, almost all of us live this way. Everything must be attended to — and if it isn't, chances are another email will appear in a few hours asking if indeed the first message was received at all. [The Tyranny of Email]

Working at the speed of email

Working at the speed of email is like trying to gain a topographic understanding of our daily landscape from a speeding train — and the consequences for us as workers are profound. Interrupted every thirty seconds or so, our attention spans are fractured into a thousand tiny fragments. The mind is denied the experience of deep flow, when creative ideas flourish and complicated thinking occurs. We become task-oriented, tetchy, terrible at listening as we try to keep up with the computer. The email inbox turns our mental to-do list into a palimpsest — there's always something new and even more urgent erasing what we originally thought was the day's priority. Incoming mail arrives on several different channels — via email, Facebook, Twitter, instant message — and in this era of backup we're sure that we should keep records of our participation in all these conversations. The result is that at the end of the day we have a few hundred or even a few thousand emails still sitting in our inbox. [The Tyranny of Email]

Part of us likes all of the attention email gives us. It has been shown that email is addictive in many of the same ways slot machines are addictive — variable reinforcement.

Tom Stafford, a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Sheffield, explains:

"This means that rather than reward an action every time it is performed, you reward it sometimes, but not in a predictable way. So with email, usually when I check it there is nothing interesting, but every so often there's something wonderful — an invite out, or maybe some juicy gossip — and I get a reward." [The Tyranny of Email]

There are chemical reasons this happens that go well beyond our love of gossip. If we're doing something that pays out randomly, our brain releases dopamine when we get something good and our body learns that we need to keep going if we want a reward.

Connections

"Ironically," Freeman writes, "tools meant to connect us are enabling us to spend even more time apart." The consequences are disastrous.

Spending our days communicating through this medium, which by virtue of its sheer volume forces us to talk in short bursts, we are slowly eroding our ability to explain — in a careful, complex way — why it is so wrong for us and to complain, resist, or redesign our workdays so that they are manageable. [The Tyranny of Email]

Life on the email treadmill

"If the medium is the message, what does that say about new survey results that found nearly 60 percent of respondents check their email when they're answering the call of nature." — Michelle Masterson

When you arrive at work and there are twenty emails in your inbox, the weight of that queue is clear: everyone is waiting for you.

So you clear and clear and clear, only to learn that the faster you reply, the faster the replies come boomeranging back to you — thanks, follow-ups, additional requests, and that one-line sinker, "How are you doing these days?" It shouldn't be such a burden to be asked your state of mind. In the workplace, however, where the sheer volume of correspondence can feel as if it has been designed on the high to enforce a kind of task-oriented tunnel vision, such a question is either a trapdoor or an escape hatch. [The Tyranny of Email]

At the workplace it used to be hard to share things without a lot of friction. Now sharing is frictionless and free. CC'ing and forwarding to keep people "in the loop" has become a mixed blessing. Now everything is collaborative and if people are left off emails they literally feel left out.

Working in a climate of interruption

"What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it." — Herb Simon

We live in a culture in which doing everything all at once is admired and encouraged — have our spreadsheet open while we check email, chin on the phone into our shoulder, and accept notes from a passing office messenger. Our desk is Grand Central and we are the conductor, and it feels good. Why? If we're this busy, clearly we're needed; we have a purpose. We are essential. The internet and email have certainly created a "desire to be in the know, to not be left out, that ends up taking up a lot of our time" — at the expense of getting things done, said Mark Ellwood, the president of Pace Productivity, which studies how employees spend their time. [The Tyranny of Email]

Of course we can't multitask the way technology leads us to believe we can. "Multitasking," Walter Kirn wrote in an essay called "The Autumn of the Multitaskers," messes with the brain in several ways:"

At the most basic level, the mental balancing acts that it requires — the constant switching and pivoting — energize regions of the brain that specialize in visual processing and physical coordination and simultaneously appear to shortchange some of the higher areas related to memory and learning. We concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever it is that we're supposed to be concentrating on.

What does this mean in practice? Consider a recent experiment at UCLA, where researchers asked a group of 20-somethings to sort index cards in two trials, once in silence and once while simultaneously listening for specific tones in a series of randomly presented sounds. The subjects' brains coped with the additional task by shifting responsibility from the hippocampus — which stores and recalls information — to the striatum, which takes care of rote, repetitive activities. Thanks to this switch, the subjects managed to sort the cards just as well with the musical distraction — but they had a much harder time remembering what, exactly, they'd been sorting once the experiment was over.

Even worse, certain studies find that multitasking boosts the level of stress related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us. In the short term, the confusion, fatigue, and chaos merely hamper our ability to focus and analyze, but in the long term, they may cause it to atrophy. [The Autumn of the Multitaskers]

"In other words," writes Freeman in The Tyranny of Email, "a work climate that revolves around multitasking, and constant interruptions has narrowed our cognitive window down to a care, basic facility: rote, mechanical tasks."

We like to think we are in control of our environment, that we act upon it and shape it to our needs. It works both ways, though; changes we make to the world can have unseen ramifications that impact our ability to live in it. [The Tyranny of Email]

Attention means being present. Being present helps mindfullness.

Thanks to an environment of constant stimulation the biggest challenge these days is maintaining focus.

"Immersing myself in a book or lengthy article used to be easy," wrote Nicolas Carr in an essay entitled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I'd spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That's rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle. [Is Google Making Us Stupid?]

Carr wrote an excellent book on the subject, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. If you don't have the time, or attention span, to read the book, you can watch the video.

Flow

Reading and other meditative tasks are best performed in what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a "state-of-flow," in which "our focus narrows, the world seems to drop away, and we become less conscious of ourselves and more deeply immersed in ideas and language and complex thoughts," Freeman writes.

Communication tools, however, seem to be working against this state.

In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi writes:

In today's world we have come to neglect the habit of writing because so many other media of communication have taken its place. Telephones and tape recorders, computers and fax machines are more efficient in conveying news. If the only point to writing were to transmit information, then it would deserve to become obsolete. But the point of writing is to create information, not simply to pass it along. In the past, educated persons used journals and personal correspondence to put their experiences into words, which allowed them to reflect on what had happened during the day. The prodigiously detailed letters so many Victorians wrote are an example of how people created patterns of order out of the mainly random events impinging on their consciousness. The kind of material we write in diaries and letters does not exist before it is written down.

It is the slow, organically growing process of thought involved in writing that lets the ideas emerge in the first place. [Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience]

In The Tyranny of Email, Freeman sums up the multitasking argument:

Multitasking may not be perfect, but it can push the brain to add new capacity; the problem, however, remains that the small gains in capacity are continuously, rapidly, outstripped by the speeding up and growing volume of incoming demand on our attention. [The Tyranny of Email]

Why is it so hard to read these days?

In his essay on Google Carr writes:

It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of "reading" are emerging as users "power browse" horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense. [Is Google Making Us Stupid?]

Some of this is due to changes in the medium itself. Newspaper articles are shorter and catchier. Text has become bigger. We're becoming a PowerPoint culture. We need bullet points, short sentences, and fancy graphics. We skim rather than read. Online readers are "selfish, lazy, and ruthless," said Jakob Nielson, a usability engineer. If we don't get what we want, as soon as we want it, we move to the next site.

But all of this has a cost.

What we are losing

"What we are losing in this country, and presumably around the world is the sustained, focused, linear attention developed by reading," said Dana Gioia, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. "I would believe people who tell me that the internet develops reading if I did not see such a universal decline in reading ability and reading comprehension on virtually all tests."

"If the research on multitasking is any guide," Freeman writes in the The Tyranny of Email, "and if several centuries of liberal arts education have proven anything, the ability to think clearly and critically and develop an argument comes from reading in a focused manner."

These skills are important because they enable employees to step back from an atmosphere of frenzy and make sense in a busy, nearly chaotic environment. If all companies want, though, is worker bees who will simply type till they drop and badger one another into a state of overload, a new generation of inveterate multitaskaholics might be just what they get. If that's the case, workplace productivity isn't the only thing that will suffer. [The Tyranny of Email]

Freeman concludes his book by offering several tips you can do to take back control of your life and the mental space email is consuming.

1. Don't send

The most important thing you can do to improve the state of your inbox, free up your attention span, and break free of the tyranny of email is not to send an email. As most people now know, email only creates more email, so by stepping away from the messaging treadmill, even if for a moment every day, you instantly dial down the speed of the email messagopolis. [The Tyranny of Email]

2.Don't check it first thing in the morning or late at night

… Not checking your email first thing will also reinforce a boundary between your work and your private life, which is essential if you want to be fully present in either place. If you check your email before getting to work, you will probably begin to worry about work matters before you actually get there. Checking your e-mail first thing at home doesn't give you a jump on the workday; it just extends it. Sending email before and after office hours has a compounded effect, since it creates an environment in which workers are tacitly expected to check their email at the same time and squeeze more work out of their tired bodies. [The Tyranny of Email]

3. Check it twice a day

… Checking your email twice a day will … allow you to set the agenda for your day, which is essential if you want to stay on task and get things done in a climate of constant communication. [The Tyranny of Email]

4. Keep a written to-do list and incorporate email into it

5. Give good email

6. Read the entire incoming email before replying

This seems like a pretty basic rule, but a great deal of email is generated by people replying without having properly read initial messages. [The Tyranny of Email]

7. Don't debate complex or sensitive matters by email

8. If you have to work as a group by email, meet your correspondents face to face

9. Set up your desktop to do something else besides email

As much as you can, take control over your office space by setting aside part of your desk for work that isn't done on the computer. Imagine it as your thinking area, where you can read or take notes or doodle as you work out a problem. [The Tyranny of Email]

10. Schedule media-free time


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