7 Reasons People Check Email Constantly

Why it's so hard to stop checking email all the time.

Posted Mar 05, 2019

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I recently read a very interesting article about how to spend less time on email, which researchers estimate can take up around 28 percent of professionals' workdays. One of the recommendations was to check email only once an hour. To most people, this might seem like a sensible suggestion, but it can be surprisingly difficult to put advice like this into practice. Why? Advice that's simple on the surface often doesn't address the psychological barriers involved. Understanding what these barriers are can help you identify the email habits that are optimal for you.

Let's unpack why people check email so frequently, and then look at solutions. Which of the following can you relate to?  

You Check Frequently Because ....

1. You dread getting behind on email.

Personally, I often check emails in the evenings, because I don't want to feel weighed down by emails when I'm trying to be productive the next morning. 

Replying to emails often requires decision making. It's tough to do too much of this at once. It can be nice to break it up and not face multiple emails that require decisions. Therefore, even though batch processing emails might be less disruptive, the psychology behind this is complicated.

2. Distracting activities are easier than productive work activities.

Doing distracting activities like email is still, in general, mentally easier than a lot of the alternatives, like concentrating for several uninterrupted hours on important work, which is something many people spend little time doing. Humans will tend to take the easier immediate path of click, click, clicking, even if it means we're not doing work that is objectively a much higher priority.

3. You want to be conscientious.

It feels more conscientious to reply to emails from people you want to impress (e.g., bosses, colleagues) in 15 minutes than to take a few hours or a day to do it. However, this is often an illusion. If you're checking email all the time, you're probably being a less productive member of your team than if you weren't.

It's not completely unfounded to think that replying to emails quickly can make you look conscientious. Sometimes this is true. However, I've argued before that taking a longer than average time to reply to emails can sometimes make you appear important (e.g., because you're too busy doing other things for email).

Once you've set up a pattern of replying to emails very quickly, it can be hard to break that pattern out of fear that other people might see your change in behavior as an indicator that you're angry or that something is wrong.

4. You fear missing out.

Sometimes we mentally attribute responding quickly to an opportunity as part of the reason we were successful. For instance, you see an email about an item that's on sale and immediately buy that item, but actually it was on sale and available all week.  

There are occasionally times I miss out on good opportunities, because I don't check email constantly, but overall that's still a better situation than feeling closely tethered to my email. What's true for you?

5. It's just habit.

There's an extent to which checking email frequently can be just a habit. You might do it reflexively when you're waiting for a meeting to start, before you go on a break, and as soon as you get back to your desk. 

You might've previously had some reasonable rationale for checking email frequently (e.g., when you're new at a job and learning the lay of the land), but the habit now exists independently of that motivation.

6. You check email during downtime as a way to avoid anxiety.

If you feel generally stressed out and are prone to rumination, moments of downtime can be like invitations for those stressed-out, ruminative thoughts to come out to party. Checking email can help fill those voids and prevent that anxiety and rumination creeping in, but it's not a good solution.  

7. You underestimate the hidden drains of email.

It apparently takes around four seconds to scan the preview text of an email, and many of us get dozens of unimportant emails each day. Because this is only a few seconds here and there, it doesn't seem like a big deal, but over time, this wasted effort adds up. Moreover, for each email we glance at, we need to make a decision about whether to read it or not, which is cognitively draining.  

Since humans will typically take the path of least resistance, we defer decisions about whether to unsubscribe to promotional emails we never or virtually never read. Humans also hate letting go of some benefit they think they have (e.g., coupons delivered by email that are occasionally relevant). This type of loss aversion is an incredibly important factor in why we make poor decisions, and it's a topic I cover in depth in my book, The Healthy Mind Toolkit.

Solutions

  • It's very easy to hear the advice to check email less often and think, "I should do that," but you never follow through. Hopefully from reading this article you've learned why it can be psychologically harder to break the habit of checking email frequently than it seems at first glance. You might've noticed that some of the reasons I've outlined seem to almost contradict each other. For example, we check email, because it's easier to be distracted than concentrate, and yet we fear email, because we're susceptible to feeling overwhelmed by it. This subtlety and complexity is often a part of our habits and why they exist.
  • Given all the points I've made, consider which approach to checking email seems like the best balance for you. Rather than a dramatic change, try slightly lengthening the time between checking. Increase it by a percentage. For instance, if you currently check it every 30 minutes, try every 40 minutes.
  • Try identifying a few times you won't check email (e.g., while waiting in line). Or, you'll check email when you get back from a break, but not before you go on break. Choose whatever would help you feel more relaxed.
  • Recognize that generic advice is of limited usefulness. Checking email in the evenings isn't a problem for me and actually works well. Therefore, I don't need to follow generic advice like: "Don't check email after 8 p.m." Cherrypick advice that's useful to you, ignore the rest, and find the best pattern that works for your preferences.
  • Some type of automatic monitoring can be very helpful for increasing your mindfulness around email. For example, I use RescueTime (free version) to get a weekly report on Sundays of how much time I spent on email in the prior week. I try to keep it under 5 hours.
  • Do your bit to break the cycle of emailing outside of work hours. If you want to work on email after hours, then just delay actually sending out your replies till the next workday. There are plenty of tools you can use to automate this too.

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