During the summer months, I’ve let our kid’s video game playing time rules slide a bit. Part of me had thought they would eventually get bored if they could play as long as they liked and would stop on their own. But after seeing them go for hours with no end in sight, I sent them outside to, as my mom would say, ‘blow the stink off’.
A quick google search showed me how common video game addiction is and how there have even been cases of people dying – yes dying – from multi-day video game marathon sessions during which people stop eating and taking care of basic bodily functions. Two Taiwanese men have died in Internet cafes just this year (some cafes are now requiring people to go home and rest after three straight days. I suppose this is the Internet cafe equivalent of cutting off someone at the bar).
Why does this happen?
Research on mice implanted with electrodes in their brain’s reward centers has shown that when the mice can control these reward centers by pressing a button activating the electrodes that they will do so until exhaustion and sometimes death avoiding both sleep and food.
Scientists have found video games activate these same reward centers of the brain.
So what does this have to do with email?
Most of us at best tolerate email but we mostly just complain about how time consuming and non-value added it is.
Study after study show demonstrates the negative productivity caused by email. In 2012, McKinsey reported that the average employee spends 28% of their workweek reading and answering e-mail. Research also indicates it takes a full 23 minutes to get back on task once we are interrupted by an email.
So why do we keep using it?
Why are we checking email after work, on vacation, and when we our out to dinner with our families? I even had one boss who while on vacation would open her laptop and check emails while hiding in the hotel bathroom so that her husband wouldn’t know.
Why do we continue being slaves to email?
Because we like it.
Similar to video games, email activates the reward centers of our brains.
In The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Daniel J Levitin notes that “Each time we dispatch an email in one way or another, we feel a sense of accomplishment, and our brain gets a dollop of reward hormones telling us we accomplished something. Each time we check [email]… we encounter something novel and feel more connected socially (in a kind of weird, impersonal cyber way) and get another dollop of reward hormones. But remember, it is the dumb, novelty-seeking portion of the brain driving the limbic system that induces this feeling of pleasure, not the planning, scheduling, higher-level thought centres in the prefrontal cortex. Make no mistake: email-, Facebook- and Twitter-checking constitute a neural addiction.”
And a constantly filling inbox on your computer or worse yet that little red number next to your mail app on your phone is like a real time productivity meter mocking you as the number grows. The higher the number, the less productive you feel. So you quickly open your email, read and respond and the number goes down.
Ahh, much better, the reward hormones kick in… immediate gratification fulfilled. But then the red number starts to climb once more and the vicious cycle continues.
We literally can’t help ourselves.
It is like dieting, once your willpower wears out, the diet goes out the window and you eat the bad food that is in the house. So what do health management experts tell you to do to combat your hard brain wiring when it comes to food? Don’t even have temptation in the house.
You can’t eat what you don’t have.
The same thought process applies to email.
Solutions for the Individual
The end of day check
Psychologist Roy F. Baumeister from Florida State University and other researchers have demonstrated that your willpower is finite. If you are like most people, you come to work and jump immediately into your email and have your email program open all day. The problem is you are using up all your precious willpower and not leaving anything left for the critical few items that will really impact your business.
If you have email as an auto start – turn it off. Don’t even open your email program until the end of the day. Schedule it on your calendar as its own activity and do only email at that time. When you leave for the day, turn it off.
If something is truly urgent, a text or call will come your way. Speaking of phones…Remove the Email app from your phone, if you aren't receiving email, you can't be distracted by it! Click To Tweet
Yeah, you read that right.
Just like eliminating unhealthy foods in your house, if you aren’t receiving email on your phone, you can’t be distracted by it. A little over a year ago when I went on vacation, I removed my email account from my phone s. All week, not a single email. It was amazing and the world didn’t end. I never put the app back on. Work is getting done. Objectives are being met.
These actions are good, but they put all of the responsibility on you to manage the issue. Email is all push no pull. You aren’t asking to get all these emails, people are simply firing off information or requests adding to your already lengthy to-do list immediately jumping to the head of the line interrupting work which is probably more important.
So companies need to put practices into place to help solve email addiction.
Solutions for Businesses
One company I worked for had a mandatory shutdown for two weeks over the Christmas holiday. There were very few employees, customer service and such, who were allowed to work during this time. After break, I would hear two common themes. From those who worked over the shutdown, they all said how much work they got done while everyone was gone. The second was everyone loved the fact that when they came back to work they didn’t have a large email inbox to slog through because all of their co-workers had been out at the same time. We had huge productivity gains during the post holiday return week. Unfortunately, that quickly evaporated a week later.
Here are some solutions businesses can provide.
Control the number email messages sent
London based International Power took a lean manufacturing approach to email. They evaluated efficiency killers such as overproduction (too many emails and large distribution lists) and defects (confusing or ineffective messages which subsequently spawn clarification email strings). They started at the top and trained executives and other leaders to reduce their email output by using other forms of communication and eliminating cc lists. The result was a drop of 20% in emails from the leadership within four months, and within three more months the entire office had reduced their email volume by over 60% which translated into a 7% increase in productivity.
Some companies have eliminated the “reply all”, “cc”, and “bcc” options and have trained employees to send their emails to a singular person versus a group if possible. Mass announcements are handled through other means such as company employee website home pages or forums and program teams are using websites which contain project information, status, and tracking of their programs. Pull vs. push.
The key is to implement systems which limit the number of emails being produced.
Banning internal emails
Companies such as PBD Worldwide and Graystone Industries have company-wide email free days where no one sends or responds to internal emails. And at Reliable PSD, Louisa Levit and her team only manage email at designated times.
And some companies have boldly eliminated all internal emails entirely.
Treehouse, an Oregon-based tech company, eliminated their internal emails and because of resulting productivity gains went to a four day work week giving its employees Friday’s off. Cristian Rennella did the same thing with his Argentine company El Mejor Trato.
But Treehouse and El Mejor Trato are small companies. What about large global enterprises. Can they eliminate email and be successful?
Turns out the answer is yes.
Atos is a global exchange services company with over 76,000 employees in 47 countries. The CEO’s found that only about 10% of his 200 daily messages where useful and that the companies managers were spending between 5 and 20 hours a week reading and writing emails. The company put in place a mutli-year process to be email free and in the first two years email usage dropped by 60%. However, with a company this size, this effort also comes with significant investment. The infographic provides some information about their journey.
If you are just starting a company take a lesson from Treehouse and others and don’t even offer email. Instead, use some of these newer collaborative technologies that are pull versus push in nature such as Slack, blueKiwi, Unison and many others.
If you are in a big company, work with your leadership and IT department to put in place email usage rules like those mentioned above, and use other tools for program teams and broad company information dissemination.
Finally as an individual, take that email app off your phone, schedule work on your email at the end of the day, and see your focus improve and your output soar.
Call to Action!
The last few years have seen an amazing explosion of “crowdsourcing”. Entirely new products which would have otherwise never had seen the light of day have come to exist – take the Pebble Smart Watch. This was funded by millions of individuals who believed in the product each pledging small sums of money. As individuals this would not have succeeded but as a collective a new industry was born.
Similarly, if you feel strongly about improving your productivity and breaking our societal email addiction, “like”, share, tweet, and use any other social media tool you have to bring visibility to the solutions above!
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