Addicted to E-mail

Obsessively checking your e-mail inbox will just make you crazy.

By Katie Gilbert, published March 8, 2006 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Comic strip character Dilbert is no stranger to the perils of addiction.

"I'm addicted to e-mail," he once lamented to Dogbert. "My endorphins spike when I get a message. And when there are no messages, loneliness and despair overcome me."

Though melodramatic, Dilbert's complaint is quite common. According to an America Online poll, we live in a country where 41% of adults scramble out of bed and check their e-mail before they brush their teeth in the morning. What's more, one in four people believe it's unthinkable to go more than two or three days without a virtual fix. We are a country with an e-mail dependence problem.

Comparing e-mail addiction to drug addiction might not be that far off. Getting connected actually mimics the path that a drug takes through the brain, found John Ratey, a psychiatrist and associate professor at Harvard. Consequently, all the symptoms of addiction are present: there's the dopamine rush with the "ding" of an e-mail alert, and there's the twitchy e-mail withdrawal during the family vacation.

These signs of addiction aren't the only symptoms we suffer because of our need to be wired; we also have shrinking attention spans. That's no small surprise considering all the chronic multi-tasking we perform in the hope of greater and greater productivity. Yet all this striving sacrifices one important thing: productivity.

David Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, found that people who shift their attention between two activities (like writing an e-mail and reading a report, for example) spend 50 percent more time than they would have if they'd just completed one task before moving on to the next. The bottom line: If you'd like to increase your productivity, try forgoing the tendency to multi-task—and stop checking and rechecking your e-mail inbox in the thick of it all.

Anyone who's ever experienced the battle between willpower and the virtual postal service knows that willpower doesn't always win. But there are solutions short of rehab. Here are some tips to help loosen the grip of the "send" button:

  • Work with your e-mail, not against it. Some programs, like Outlook, allow you to check for e-mail only every 15 minutes or half hour
  • Turn off the "ding" that alerts you to new messages
  • Send certain messages, like thank you notes or birthday cards, by snail mail only
  • Set an unwavering e-mail timeframe, and tell yourself that e-mail is not allowed before or after the set times
  • Never make e-mail the first thing you do in the morning or the last thing you do at night

If all else fails, try to close up e-mail shop completely for a few days. You'll discover that the tangled worldwide web you weave can, in fact, exist without the World Wide Web.