I have a full and rewarding career, and four teenagers who go to four different schools. I couldn’t have the life I do without email. I am certain of this.
But email is also a disaster. It’s mostly a giant to-do list that other people create for you — people (and companies) who don’t know and probably don’t give a damn about your highest priorities — or the other things you’re hoping to get done today.
This is why I aim to spend 45 minutes or less reading and responding to emails a day. This frees up hours and hours to do my most important work, and to do the things that I value the most, like hang out with my children.
There are real challenges to managing the amount of time we spend on email, mostly because email is so satisfying and stimulating and easy to check constantly. It can feel enormously gratifying to delete emails in rapid succession. Checking email excites our brain, providing the novelty and stimulation it adores. In fact, your brain will tell you that you are being more productive when you are checking your messages than when you are disconnected from email and actually focusing on something important.
But checking is not the same as working. While it certainly feels productive to check email or answer a text, constant checking actually reduces our productivity. All that checking interrupts us from accomplishing our more vital work; once we are deep in concentration, each derailment costs us nearly a half an hour–that’s the average amount of time it takes to get back on track once we’ve been interrupted (or we’ve interrupted ourselves by looking at email).
This point is worth lingering on: how productive we are does not correlate well with how productive we feel. Checking our email a lot feels productive because our brains are so stimulated when we are doing it. But it isn’t actually productive: One Stanford study showed that while media multitaskers tended to perceive themselves as performing better on their tasks, they actually tended to perform worse on every measure the researchers studied.
We humans are weak when it comes to resisting our email. The solution is easy: All we need to do is set our email up in a way that makes it less tempting.
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