36 times an hour

We check email 36 times/hour “It’s terrible,” she said. “I can’t focus any more. I can’t even read a book.”

I was talking with a smart, successful woman who’s an investment analyst, and we were talking about how she works. The best times to do the deep thinking required for her work. How to avoid being overwhelmed by news, email, and interruptions.

As we spoke, she was looking at her Blackberry. I asked her, “Did you know people check email 36 times an hour?”

“My God,” she said. “I bet I’m worse.”

Why it’s important

I used to think that those who ranted about the evils of email were missing the point. It’s not email per se that’s the problem, I figured, but how people are using it. As people used more modern platforms, their email usage would naturally decline.

But I failed to see just how insidious email can be. And how, if people don’t change their email habits, they may not be able to develop other, more productive work habits.

Why is email so bad? Simply put, people spend too much of their day on email, use it to store knowledge which should be available to others but isn’t, and are interrupted by it throughout the day to the point of lowering their performance on other work.

Here are some statistics:

Of these, I find the last statistic is the most damning. There’s plenty of brain science that shows attention is a limited and precious resource. And that you expend that resource when you’re switching contexts. So if you’re constantly checking email, you simply have less capacity to pay attention and your performance degrades.

“Those distracted by incoming email and phone calls saw a 10-point fall in their IQ - more than twice that found in studies of the impact of smoking marijuana, said researchers...Those who are constantly breaking away from tasks to react to email or text messages suffer similar effects on the mind as losing a night's sleep.”

But if it’s so bad, why do we do it?

Why we do it

Perhaps the simplest explanation for our email habits is the way we’re wired. For example, we seem to be designed to respond to intermittent reinforcements. Checking email is akin to using a slot machine. Every so often, we get a good message so we keep checking in hopes of getting another one.

Email can also be a source of issues and news that threaten us in some way. And so, just as we used to scan the savannah for danger, we feel the need to keep checking email just to make sure everything is okay.

And lastly, everyone else is doing it. So there’s social proof that checking your email in meetings, in elevators, while driving, and while crossing the street is not as harmful as we know it to be.

There are, of course, other reasons. Because it’s easy to mark progress as you process email (“Inbox zero!”), you get a sense of accomplishment from doing it. And because processing email feels like work, it’s an easy alternative to the much more difficult job of creating something of value.

What we can do

In understanding and changing my own email habits, the two books I’ve found the most useful are “Your Brain at Work” and “Manage Your Day-To-Day”. The first applies scientific research to motivate better ways of working. The second is a compendium of practices and perspectives from people as varied as Seth Godin, the designer Stefan Sagmeister, and the author Steve Pressfield.

These great resources have many good suggestions. Here are three to get you started:

  1. Turn off notifications. You already check email so often that you don’t need extra nudges to do so.
  2. Set boundaries. Check your email at scheduled times and work through it during those times as opposed to checking and processing throughout the day.
  3. Reserve distraction-free blocks of time. Schedule time in your calendar in which you don’t use email or other communications tools. Then use this time for your most demanding, creative work. (For many, this is in the morning when they first wake up. So the very common habit of checking email first thing in the morning is among the worst ways you can start your day.)

Yes, it's just email. But controlling your email is an important steps towards mastering how you spend your time and attention, both of which are key to your effectiveness and fulfillment.