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Your Brain on Email

Updated: Apr 26

How much time to you think you spend reading or responding to email every day? Recent studies show that the average office employee spends almost a third of the workday reading and responding to messages. That number is 10-15% higher for remote employees.

In a recent Huffington Post poll, people were asked how much time they spend disconnected from email. Completely disconnected. No devices, no pinging, no vibrating, no pop-ups. Out of 1200 respondents, 60% reported spending less than two waking hours a day completely disconnected from email. Twenty percent spend less than a half hour disconnected.

Email isn't just a time-suck. Checking email can become an addiction and easily morph into an productivity sinkhole.

The Science Behind the Addiction

It’s not just the quantity; it’s the range of emotions that email can trigger. Think about how often you open your email to something disappointing or troubling—a communication from a frustrated client, a “hair on fire” message from a colleague, or a boss that needs that report yesterday. Or what about the group messages with 12 people cc’d jumping into the conversation. Then, there are the nuisance messages. The ones that make you swear you’re going to unsubscribe.

Sure, there are some good ones – a request to speak at an upcoming conference, a vacation picture from your sister, or a few kind words of praise about your last project. It’s these positive, happy or fun messages, sprinkled in with all the rest that make email so addictive. They make us want to check our email again and again and again, even when we have better things to do.

Most of us are, in fact, addicted to email. Checking email looking for the good ones is shown to stimulate the release of the same reward and pleasure hormone, dopamine, that we get from other addictive behaviors such as sex, gambling, and drugs.

But, the negative ones are more dangerous. They do more than just steal our focus. They also generate stress chemicals like cortisol and norepinephrine that put you in survival mode. They shift blood flow away from areas where it might not be so crucial, like the thinking rational part of the brain, and toward the survival part of the brain to prepare you for fight, flight or freeze. But when the body continuously releases a steady flow of stress chemicals, it takes a toll – from suppressed immune system to increased blood pressure, decreased libido, and even heart disease.

Multitasking? Sorry… No.

Cognitive scientists believe that checking email less often may reduce stress in part by cutting down on task switching. While many of us think we are multitasking ninjas, neuroscience tells us that there really is no such thing as multitasking. As incredible as the human brain is, it has a tough time focusing on two demanding tasks simultaneously. Rather, your brain just bounces back and forth between tasks.

Interrupting that deck you’re working on to stop and check your inbox does more than just slow you down on the presentation. It actually zaps your cognitive resources and your time. Constant task switching changes the structure of the brain physically and chemically impacting concentration, recall, and overall cognitive performance.

The more you bounce back and forth between tasks and email throughout the day, the more inefficient you get at each task. According to a University of California-Irvine study, we lose 20 minutes every time we shift our focus from the current task to our inbox.

Research has shown that just having your email program open in the background of your computer screen as you focus on another task, even if the window is minimized, can decrease performance. Even if it's just one of the many windows open on your screen, your brain still knows it’s there in the background and devotes a certain amount of energy to monitoring it. Checking your email in a physically separate space can actually make your incoming messages— and any attendant anxiety or urgency—feel more distant and less pressing. The more clear your primary work screen is, the more focused you are on that work.

Further research shows that the stress of email overload also impacts impulse control. The stress generates cortisol and that increase of cortisol makes it harder for the prefrontal cortex – the rational, thinking brain that weighs actions against consequences – to do its job effectively. We’ve all been there… pound out a response to an email and hit send before stopping to think about how that message may be received or whether that message should be sent at all.

Productivity isn’t about pedaling faster and harder to keep up with a never-ending flow of information. It’s about being deliberate and efficient about how to spend your energy and focus. And it’s about reclaiming control over your inbox rather than letting it control you.


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