We have all been there, staring at the screen of our preferred device – smartphone or computer, it doesn’t matter – while incessantly opening and closing our e-mail inbox, almost as if waiting for that new message. According to a recent study on e-mail issuance, in 2015 we collectively sent and received over 200 billion(!) e-mails. Unfortunately for us e-mail aficionados, this figure only seems to be worsening. It is expected to reach almost 250 billion by 2019 .
But why are we hooked on it? Well, for me to explain why we are addicted to it, we would have to look into rats. Back in the 1930s, the renowned psychologist B.F. Skinner ran an experiment in which he provided positive (food pellets) or negative (electric shocks) reinforcement to the rodents in either a fixed or variable schedule. His findings revealed that rats in a variable schedule were significantly more motivated than the other group. Thus, the motivated rats kept searching for those food pellets even if it meant getting more electric shocks in the process.
If this still doesn’t sound familiar, think about the amount of “garbage” e-mail that you get for every “valuable” one. E-mail is basically a variable rewards system in which we almost never know when we will get a message that is worth our time, yet we desperately crave to find out as soon as it hits the inbox.
Now, e-mail can’t be all that bad, right? Ultimately, it is still the preferred way to communicate with colleagues and acquaintances. Well, there are studies showing several side-effects related to e-mail overload. These are two of the most relevant ones:
- Diminished cognitive performance: Research shows that switching tasks takes a toll on concentration and thus hinders performance. One study even mentions that the time it takes to go back to the original task is around 23 minutes. So, if you think that having that Outlook inbox open doesn’t disrupt your work throughout the day, it’s time to pay attention to all these costly interruptions.
- Increased emotional stress: E-mail not only disrupts the flow of your day and concentration, but it also increases the feeling of anxiety in your life. A study shows that on average office workers check the inbox 74 times per day, and spend 28% of their total workday reading and answering e-mails. Other study showed that there is a positive correlation between interruptions and stress.
Fortunately, there are many ways to combat the problem of e-mail overload. Some solutions rely on personal willpower while others leverage the power of technology. But before we dive into the solutions, let’s start by challenging the notion that all e-mails should be treated equally.
Why must we get all e-mails in our inbox as soon as we receive them? Is it really urgent to read that newsletter at the moment it gets received? Our inbox is configured in a way that it runs according to other people’s schedules. We are interrupted when everyone else decides to reach out to us. But, what if we flip the model on its head? What if WE decide WHEN to receive e-mails FROM different senders?
Dan Ariely, a renowned behavioral economist that my team works closely with, ran an experiment to find out how many e-mails are really urgent and must be read immediately, and how many could wait for later. The results were mind blowing, only 12% of e-mails needed to be read within 5 minutes of being received! The rest could wait for later in the day or week and 34% were even categorized as “no need to see them at all”.
With this new mental framework, we can unequivocally say that one of the biggest solutions to e-mail overload relies on switching from a push system (in which you get e-mails as they are being sent) to a pull one (in which you decide when to receive e-mails).
One of the ways to switch to a pull system requires a lot of willpower, but it is not impossible to adopt:
- Setting specific windows of time in the day to check e-mail. This a simple but not as easy as you might think solution. It requires personal commitment and that you “trust the system”. Given that on average only 12% of e-mail needs to be read immediately, you could set 2 or 3 windows throughout the day to check your messages and answer to those that are urgent first, while leaving the other ones for the later windows in the day. It is critical that you close your inbox and open it only in the allocated time frames. Give it a couple of weeks to fully acclimate, you will see how this quick fix works miracles! You can view the advantages of batch processing here.
- Bundle contacts into groups and create rules to send their messages to specific folders. This solution will automatically keep your inbox clear from most messages, since they will be channeled to specific folders within your e-mail client. Even though it might be cumbersome at first to create the rules, this is time well spent. When coupled with the previous solution, you could focus on the most important folders first, improving your e-mail efficiency in the process. You can see how filters improved Katy’s (the editor of FlippingHeck.com) inbox here.
It’s Time To Take Back Control Of Your Inbox
Fortunately, there are apps that can help you with this process. The app we are currently working on is called Filtr, and our objective is to help e-mail users triage their inbox messages depending on the sender. With a single tap, YOU can define WHEN to receive e-mail FROM other people.
Filter Emails Easily with the Filtr App
Filtr (you can get it here) shows you the most relevant contacts you have received e-mails from and provides several options to categorize the sender in terms of when you want to receive their e-mails. Our data supports Dan Ariely’s research, since on average only 23% of the e-mails were categorized as immediate, 50% wanted to be seen sometime later, and 27% never wanted to be seen (“never show” category).
So there you have it, now you understand why e-mail is such an addictive activity, some of the most relevant repercussions it could have on your cognitive performance and emotional state, as well as different strategies to fight e-mail overload by flipping the model on its head. Hopefully, with this information in hand you will be able to improve your productivity and focus on what’s important.
 Retrieved from http://www.radicati.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Email-Statistics-Report-2015-2019-Executive-Summary.pdf
  Mark, G., Gudith, D., & Klocke, U. (2008). The cost of interrupted work: More speed and stress. Paper presented at the 107-110. doi:10.1145/1357054.1357072
 Glei, J. Unsubscribe – How to kill e-mail anxiety, avoid distractions, and get real work done. PublicAffairs (2016).