Your Reactions to E-Mail Tell You About Your Personality
Will reducing your e-mailing make you less or more stressed?
Posted Dec 29, 2020
The holidays are a time for embracing comforting traditions of the past, and looking ahead with new resolve to change things in the future. Whether you buy into that or not, it seems appropriate to invoke one or other of the spirits of the season to address what now seems to many like an old-fashioned problem, and engage in a bit of forward planning in the process. Start by asking yourself some questions—during any time you’ve had off over the festive season, did you do any e-mail, and, if not, did you miss it? Did you have more time to do the things you wanted to do? Planning forward, how might it be possible for you to reduce the amount of this traditional form of digital communication, and what does your response to e-mail tell you about your personality?
Imagine you are sitting happily on a plane, a train, a bus, or in a café, getting on with your own thing, and thinking your own thoughts. Somebody comes along, uninvited, sits down, and starts talking at you. At the very least, we might feel that they are being rude, and seethe silently and inwardly while they witter away on the topic of their choice. Others of a more outgoing turn of personality might take more active steps to interrupt the unwelcome flow. Now think about work—it’s not quite the same, that’s true, but we all have things we have to do; imagine you are getting on with them, and then there’s the ‘ding’, the ‘ping’, or the ‘flash’—another e-mail has arrived. In a 1998 film, You’ve Got Mail, one of the characters says something to the effect of: ‘You’ve got mail—those are the greatest words!’—two decades later, that sounds a bit hollow.
In a recent survey, it was found that people spend about three hours a day checking e-mail at work (presumably, that’s work-related e-mail), and a further two hours a day checking their personal e-mails (we all have two e-mail addresses, now!)1. The millennial generation spend about six hours a day scrolling through their e-mail, often to get access to their social media messages! Far from being old fashioned, out of date, not worth thinking about, e-mail usage is growing—there were 100 million more accounts in 2019 than in 2018, taking the total to nearly 4 billion accounts worldwide1 (to save you the trouble, that’s 250 billion hours e-mailing worldwide a day).
All of this frantic e-mailing at work (and at home) is on top of the tasks that always used to need doing—for those under 25, e-mail hasn’t actually replaced anything in the workplace, it just added to it. So we are all stressed out by e-mail—this we know already, from experience and research2,3, and we have known it for a decade and a half4. Nevertheless, the e-mail keeps coming, perpetuated as it is one of the few real examples of it being easier to give than receive.
But why does e-mail stress us—beyond the sense that it’s a completely useless waste of our time that rarely actually achieves anything, obviously? Psychological theory suggests that e-mail not only adds to our list of things to do, but also creates sources of interference with our thinking that produce cognitive strain and stress, and unpleasant physiological reactions. These effects will depend on your personality, and, it turns out, your reaction to e-mail can tell you what sort of personality you have.
Voluminous levels of incoming e-mail take time away from other ongoing work, causing disruption to our activities, reducing the practice of sustained attention, and creating habits of self-checking and self-interrupting4. There is good experimental evidence for the impacts of excessive digital technology on our cognitive and behavioural responses, like attention, impulse control, and memory5,6. Thus, excessive e-mail impacts on our behavioural and cognitive habits, generating the conditions where stress can grow—it simultaneously produces extra stressors, and takes away our cognitive resources to deal with them.
Given we know the stress-inducing properties of this digital activity, what should be done about it? We might like to reduce our e-mailing activities, and the questions asked at the start of this piece were aimed to gently prod you in that direction—but how should we reduce our reliance on e-mail, now we are hooked? French workers won the right to ban it after hours7; whether they do or not, is another matter, and being told to do something usually produces the opposite result (social distancing?). British employers make polite suggestions about not e-mailing unless absolutely necessary, and hint: “Managers should be careful not to encourage unhealthy expectations—staff should not feel that they must respond to emails immediately, out of hours, when on vacation, etc., unless it is part of their role.”8. But what happens if we take matters into our own hands, and devise our own plan to limit our time on e-mail—rather like when an alcoholic attempts to limit their drinking in a controlled-drinking programme9?
One method suggested to reduce the interfering effects of e-mail is called ‘batching’. This refers to when e-mail is only done at certain times in the day, or, perhaps, in the week. The rest of the time is left free for other activities. Several studies have found that, when individuals limit the times they check their e-mail, perhaps to three times a day (presumably, not two hours at a time), they report reduced levels of stress4. Batching can be imposed by employers, only letting through e-mails in batches at certain times of the day; or it can be a strategy that individuals impose for themselves. For many reasons, the former employer-directed method is not to be preferred—at best, employees will spend all day worrying about when the e-mail will come in, and, as we shall see, this disproportionately negatively affects some personality types. It also introduces even more control by employers, which is ultimately self-defeating, and which I’ve discussed previously10.
However, whether this batching-strategy works or not also depends on the personality of the person adopting it. Personality differences will impact how we deal with interruptions, and how those interruptions act as stressors. In one study, 63 individuals were asked to multi-task in a virtual office, and were subjected to two sorts of e-mail delivery—batching or continual—with lower or higher levels of interruptions11. Not everybody fared well with batching. Individuals with higher levels of neuroticism were more stressed by batching, compared to those with lower levels of neuroticism. Presumably, neurotics sit around just waiting and worrying about the next batch—and they sweat a lot, as well, so this study found. Thus, they experience both psychological and physical impacts. In turn, stress impacts the manner in which e-mails are completed, as stressed people do their e-mails faster. This is not a good thing, as stressed people also write more ‘angry’ words in their e-mails—stress, anger, and heightened impulsivity, together, do not make an ideal combination—e-mail rage!
Thus, e-mail continues to be a bane—perhaps more in the workplace than in personal life since the advent of social media—but it’s still a source of potential damage to us. As you make your plans and resolutions, think about reducing the amount of e-mail you do, but do it in a way that will work for your personality12. Do you really need to reply to everything? Think about what you will replace that e-mail time with—the things you really want and need to do, in order to do your job or live your life even better.
1. Adobe Email Usage Study (2019). https://www.slideshare.net/adobe/2019-adobe-email-usage-study
2. Jerejian, A.C., Reid, C., & Rees, C.S. (2013). The contribution of email volume, email management strategies and propensity to worry in predicting email stress among academics. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(3), 991-996.
3. Kushlev, K., & Dunn, E.W. (2015). Checking email less frequently reduces stress. Computers in Human Behavior, 43, 220-228.
4. Dabbish, L.A., & Kraut, R.E. (2006, November). Email overload at work: an analysis of factors associated with email strain. In Proceedings of the 2006 20th anniversary conference on Computer supported cooperative work (pp. 431-440).
5. Zhou, Z., Zhou, H., & Zhu, H. (2016). Working memory, executive function and impulsivity in Internet-addictive disorders: a comparison with pathological gambling. Acta Neuropsychiatrica, 28(2), 92-100.
6. Reed, P., Osborne, L.A., Romano, M., & Truzoli, R. (2015). Higher impulsivity after exposure to the internet for individuals with high but not low levels of self-reported problematic internet behaviours. Computers in Human Behavior, 49, 512-516.
7. Morris, D.Z. (2017). New French law bars work email after hours. Fortune. https://fortune.com/2017/01/01/french-right-to-disconnect-law
8. University of Liverpool (2020). Guidance on effective use of email. https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/csd/email/effectiveuseofemail
9. Miller, W.R. (1983). Controlled drinking. A history and a critical review. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 44(1), 68-83.
10. Reed, P. (2020). Like a rat in Twitter box. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/digital-world-real-world/202011/rat-in-twitter-box
11. Akbar, F., Bayraktaroglu, A. E., Buddharaju, P., Da Cunha Silva, D. R., Gao, G., Grover, T., ... & Storer, K. (2019, May). Email makes you sweat: Examining email interruptions and stress using thermal imaging. In Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1-14).
12. Reed, P. (2018). Ways to ditch digital. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/digital-world-real-world/201812/ways-ditch-digital