Your inbox is not your job

But it’s not as simple as turning off your alerts.

Do you constantly check your email inbox? Is it the first thing you do when you wake up? Does your inbox rule your day leaving limited time for proper thinking and completing tasks? Or maybe it’s not just email that’s the problem. Are you also distracted by alerts and notifications and franticly responding to WhatsApp and various messengers? Your inbox is not your job but is that where you’re spending most of your time and energy?

In the 1990’s email revolutionised the workplace claiming to increase efficiency and productivity. All work could progress faster with immediate, accessible, low-cost, targeted communication.

Today, globally, it’s estimated that there are almost 4.73 billion email users, and 376 billion e-mails are sent every day.

One piece of research says that the average worker sends and receives 126 business emails per day. This is one email every 4 minutes. The average worker checks their inbox 77 times a day (with the heaviest user in the research checking over 400 times a day). The average worker spends more than 3 hours a day sending and receiving emails.

This is bad news when your inbox is not your job.

The downside to email is that because its accessible by so many people 24/7 it can cause massive stress, anxiety and overwhelm. Its constant distraction reduces the productivity in our working lives. This sort of reactive work is the downfall of creative thinking, innovation and focused strategic work.

 Imagine a world without email 

In Cal Newport’s book, ‘A world without email’ he explains how it’s not just the distraction of responding to notifications and alerts that impacts our working day but that email messes with the fundamental social circuits in our brains.

Thousands of years ago, human beings early survival was because we protected ourselves by living in communities. We are social animals, and we are still hard wired to seek community. A core component of community survival is being a good communicator. The unanswered, unread emails sitting in your inbox can weigh heavily on your mind because in your subconscious brain they represent the neglect of your social obligations. Members of your tribe are trying to get your attention and you’re ignoring them. In our basic wiring, this registers as an emergency. This is why an unanswered email can cause a state of unease and creeping feelings of anxiety. It’s a disastrous mismatch of modern tools and ancient brains.

Newport calls this email culture ‘The Hyperactive Hive Mind’ and defines it as ‘a workflow centred around ongoing conversation fuelled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools like email and instant messenger services.’

Not only does email (and any asynchronous communication like instant messenger) impact and interrupt focused thinking time but the mechanism itself causes human beings low underlying stress.

We want that flash of feeling good

When you hear that little noise or see the envelope pop up and you know an email has arrived, your brain says ‘OOH what could it be! It could be important. It might be exciting!’  The hyperactive hive mind is activated and it’s impossible to ignore it.

The promise of the new, exciting email and the feeling of release from the anxiety of having not checked your emails recently (even if you checked them 2 minutes ago) gives you a Dopamine hit. Dopamine is a chemical which released into the brain gives you a reward – a flash of feeling good. Every time you check your email it has a negative impact on your productivity. If you’re doing deep work, which requires concentration and focus, it interrupts your flow. Research indicates that every interruption, even if it’s just for a couple of seconds can take at least 15 minutes to get back into a flow state. If you’re checking your email every 4 minutes you don’t stand a chance of getting any proper thinking done.

You can step out of this cause-and-effect addictive Dopamine loop by turning the alerts off, but that causes stress because your ancient brain needs to reply because its primary concern is survival.

That’s why it’s not quite as simple as turning off your alerts.

Whether you lead or manage a team remember that your inbox is not your job. You have the opportunity to reduce the hyperactive hive mind culture for your team or organisation and help yourself and others carve out time for getting tasks done as well as creativity, innovation and strategic thinking. With less email stress consider the bigger collective impact you could make.

Want to learn more? 

Juliet Corbett and I talk about your inbox not being your job and what to do about it on our Quiet Leadership Revolution podcast – take a listen here. 

There’s also training in the Lucidity Network on ‘Your inbox is not your job’ where I share practical tips to help you manage your mindset and approach to email (and any asynchronous communication like instant messenger). As well as tools to reduce stress and help you and your team to make time to focus on the work that matters.  Join the Network today and watch the training as part of your membership package.

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