Photo: Bonnie Kittle
Productivity

Four science-backed ways to fix your email

So many emails, so much anxiety, little time.

Duke University behavioral economist Dan Ariely decided to take a look if we really need to be notified of every email that comes our way, and came up with a solution.

It starts with thinking about your behavior when you get an email.

Think about the second an email rolls into your inbox, sound and all: does the hair on your arms stand at attention? Do you get goosebumps out of sheer dread? A little rush of anxiety into your stomach?

What doesn’t help: email reproduces as quickly as rabbits do. You get an email, you reply, and what happens? You get another email in return, and then you’re right back where you started. It becomes difficult to make a dent in the flow of it. More than 205 billion emails were sent and received every day in 2015, according to technology market research firm The Radicati Group.

Whatever your experience is, you probably have some sort of internal reaction (even if it’s not nearly as visceral).

Now think of that reaction multiplied hundreds of times in your company, thousands of times across your industry and millions of times across the country. A lot of people are sending a lot of emails around the world, which means that out-of-control email has an impact on how we work.

Read on to find out just how much of a toll your email has on your productivity, and what can be done to help you mange your inbox(es).

Turn off email notifications

Your email can wait. Turn off notifications and set specification times to check it.

Getting caught up in other things while attempting to be productive can take a toll on you.

Ariely argues that there is a “high cost of interruption,” namely, that there is a “time cost,” “performance cost” and one on “stress/emotional well-being.”

He realized that with no way do determine how important emails are based on a “ping” sound alone, we spend a lot of time and energy on messages that we might not need to focus on immediately.

Ariely asked people to look at the last 40 emails that came their way, and asked them when they needed to have seen the information in them, according to his blog post.

He found that 7% had to be seen within an hour, 4% at some point during a four hour period, 17% “by the end of the day,” 10% “by the end of the week,” and 15% “at some point.”

But here’s the kicker: apparently, 34% didn’t need to be seen at all. He also found that just 12% of received emails needed to be seen within the first five minutes.

This is the worst part of emails: they have the power to throw off your mood. Getting interrupted at work constantly can negatively impact your physical and mental health, and that’s all email does.

“Our data suggests that people compensate for interruptions by working faster, but this comes at a price: experiencing more stress, higher frustration, time pressure and effort,” according to a study by researchers Humboldt University in Berlin and the University of California, Irvine. 

Is that email worth the trouble of stopping what you’re doing? Probably not. Turn off your inbox if you want to focus at work, and check email later.

Sort by sender

Ariely thinks we should weigh the importance of each email.

“The first thing we should question is this idea that all emails are created equal.  Should each email be able to interrupt people?  Is the email from someone’s boss as important as the weekly industry newsletter he’s signed up for?  What if we designed a different system in which emails were not treated equally?” Ariely wrote in a blog post. 

 So he came up with a solution: a method of “sorting emails based on the sender. In other words, depending on the sender, emails could be set to be received at different intervals.”

He helped create an app called Filtr, and found that just like in his prior research, people sorted their emails according to who sent them.

He wrote that just 23% were set up with the “immediate” label, 10%  “every-4-hours,” 19% “the end of the day,” 16% to “the end of the week,” 5% to “some day” and 27% had the “never” label.

This is one way to take control of your email.

According to The Atlantic, Ariely has also helped create a web app called Shortwhale, which lets you tell senders how you like to get your emails.

Unsubscribe or Filter

The key to fighting email, Ariely says, is to reduce distractions. Fewer emails mean fewer distractions. If you get daily status updates, newsletters or even sales offers, consider either unsubscribing or filtering them into folders you can check later.

Archive everything to empty your inbox

Following Ariely’s theories, your inbox has a strong effect on your wellbeing. You can clear it out and keep only the emails you need to act on. The secret? Select everything you don’t immediately need, and hit “archive” on your email client. All your old email will still be searchable, but it won’t be staring you in the face and dragging you into past conversations.