You’ve got mail? So what?

Posted on July 20, 2012 by

Breathe while reading your email! Photo credit: Marie-Chantale Turgeon

Photo credit: Marie-Chantale Turgeon

You are at work, focused on putting the finishing touches on a report that’s due tomorrow morning.  Getting this report finished is the most important thing you have to do today.  You’ve set your phone to do-not-disturb, and closed your office door.  You are determined not to let anything disrupt your concentration… or at least that’s your plan.

Unfortunately, if you are like most of us, you’ll continue checking email as you work.  Chances are, you’ll check it far more frequently than you realize.  Research shows that employees who believe they are checking email once an hour are actually checking it every five minutes (Dr. Karen Renaud, University of Glasgow).  And those who frequently check email switch computer screens 37 times per hour (Dr. Gloria Mark, UC Irvine).  Worse, once you’ve distracted yourself by answering an email, it will take you 64 seconds to get back on track, according to Dr. Thomas Jackson of Loughborough University.  Pause for a moment and think about that.  How much time are you actually dedicating to the report that is due in the morning?

Whatever would possess us to check email that frequently?  What are we looking for?  Research done by Dr. Tom Stafford, a researcher at the University of Sheffield and author of the Rough Guide Book of Brain Training, sheds light on what is motivating us.  He likens email to a slot machine:

Both slot machines and email follow something called a ‘variable interval reinforcement schedule’ which has been established as a way to train in the strongest habits.  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 ever so often there’s something wonderful – an invite out, or maybe some juicy gossip – and I get a reward.

Now, I have never gambled at a slot machine.  I pride myself in maintaining a high level of discipline while I work.  But as I am writing this article, I have had to resist the urge to check my email several times.  It appears that I have trained myself to constantly pull that lever in hopes of a reward, much as rats in a cage who will train themselves to endure an electrical shock to obtain a piece of cheese.

So what is the likelihood that you’ll produce the best possible work on that report while you are repeatedly distracted?  Pretty slight, if you ask me.  We need to change our mindset about email.

Instead of thinking of email as something that needs to be checked frequently, relegate it to the position it really deserves on your to-do list.  It likely falls far behind the report that is due tomorrow, and your regularly scheduled work, and your ad-hoc assignments.  In fact, it is likely the fifth, tenth, or fifteenth item on your list.  Treat it that way.  After all, if you respond to email before you do your most important work, you are letting the people who send you email schedule your day for you, and dictate your success or failure.  We’d consider that ludicrous if it was presented to us in those words, but most of us fall into the trap of letting it happen.
So let’s all try to reduce the number of times a day we check email, and give ourselves solid blocks of time without any email interruptions.  And tell me… were you able to read this entire article without checking your email?

Hutchison’s Law:  Any occurrence requiring undivided attention will be accompanied by a compelling distraction.
Robert Bloch, American Writer, 1917-1994

2 Responses to “You’ve got mail? So what?”

  1. Pete Petrone says:

    Hi Daina,
    You are so correct on this issue. Thank you for highlighting how viewing emails can destroy your priorities for the day. We all must be more aware of the tempting sideshows that exist in the day. I have found that isolating my personal emails in a separate Outlook profile helps me avoid this trap.
    Again, thank you for the note.

    • Andria Case Andria Case says:

      Thank you for your comments. One of my next articles is going to be about how meetings keep us from doing our jobs. Haven’t written it yet, though.

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