Did that question make you want to go take a look and just see if something important had shown up since the last time you checked? Did it make you feel ever so slightly (or maybe more than slightly) anxious as you recalled the ever-growing number of messages sitting there?
Email is a fact of modern professional life. It’s just a communications tool. But the very features that constituted email’s improvements over earlier communications modes, such as postal mail or landline telephones, have also created problems for many users.
Characteristics of Email
Email is fast. Email allows us to communicate with greater speed which can mean greater efficiency. Problems can be solved and questions can be answered in minutes or hours rather than days or weeks. But the speed and ease with which email can be distributed, sometimes to unnecessary multiple recipients, means that it can pile up very rapidly in your inbox.
Email is asynchronous. Like postal mail, email does not require that the sender and receiver participate in the communication exchange at the same time. Its great advantage is that people can work at different times or in different time zones and still communicate within a reasonably rapid timeframe. But because of the speed of transmission, email can sometimes function as a near-synchronous communication and some users can then come to expect (even demand) very rapid response.
Email generates a record of communication. Unlike the telephone, or even face-to-face meetings, email automatically creates its own record of the conversation. This can be beneficial when documenting responsibilities or decisions, but also requires users to make more decisions about archiving or deleting email.
Email and You
Here at ProfHacker, we often write about software and productivity methods to help with email. In particular, David Allen‘s Getting Things Done and Merlin Mann‘s Inbox Zero posts have been helpful for me and many others. But in this post I want to focus instead on the benefits of mindfulness, or becoming more aware of how you’re using email.
Email Eats Up My Time
If you sometimes look up from your computer in surprise that an hour or two has slid by while you were “just checking email,” then setting some clear boundaries on when you process email might be of some help. Kathleen recently suggested making sure to spend the first half-hour of the morning on your most important project, before checking email. Efficiency expert Julie Morgenstern republished one of her books in 2005 as Never Check Email in the Morning, which offers expanded tips on how and why to focus on other priorities first. Granted, there may be certain days when responding to email actually is your priority: maybe you have heavy advising responsibilities and it’s the week of course registration. But for most of us, most of the time, whatever requests or information that comes in through email won’t really be as important as moving forward with our research or teaching preparation.
But it can be very difficult to train yourself out of the email habit, especially if it is a confirmed habit of your workday (or your entire day) and if your correspondents have come to expect you to be online all the time. Tim Ferriss suggests taking a more deliberate approach by setting specific times of the day when you will handle email and explicitly communicating those times by using an automatic email responder. In the example he gives of his automatic response, he explains that he only checks email at 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 pm on weekdays. If the bulk of your email comes from students, then communicating your email policy to them will help them know what to expect. For instance, Ethan is planning on telling his students that he will not respond to emails over the weekend or after 9 pm.
Email is Addicting
If the idea of only checking your email twice a day made you feel sweaty and nervous (maybe you just went and checked it right now, while you were also reading this post), then you probably are just a little bit hooked. Neurologically, email functions like a slot machine: it provides random, unexpected rewards. Sure, most of the time, it’s going to just give you notices of upcoming meetings, a question from a student, maybe discussions on a professional listserv. But once in a while, you might hit the jackpot: congratulations, your article was accepted at Prestigious Journal! That random reinforcement keeps you curious and keeps you coming back.
Ever notice that some days you find yourself really hooked on email, but other days you’re immersed in a project? If you are bored, tired, or mildly depressed, then you may be boosting your neurochemistry with a little adrenaline by checking your email. If those emails are stressful in their content or in their ever-increasing numbers, then that’s a little more adrenaline. Life coach Cheryl Richardson offers some excellent suggestions about how to reduce your adrenaline addiction in Take Time for Your Life. As a starting point, she suggests getting up to get a drink of water or take a short walk when you get the urge to check email outside of your set email times.
The emotional charge you get from engaging with others through email may also keep you coming back for more, wondering how someone will respond to your last message. The speed of email can also encourage heated responses that might better be left unsent. So Soren Gordhamer recommends waiting a day before replying to any email to encourage more reflective communication. This may also help you modify your email habit.
Try a Mindful Approach to Email
For all of these reasons, I’ve been trying to adopt some basic techniques of mindful awareness to email. The summer is a good time to try this out, since the amount of email I receive decreases when I’m not teaching. A few things that have been working well for me include:
Set Your Intention. Pausing for a moment before turning to the email tab in my browser to set a clear intention helps me to break free of the habit of clicking over there without thinking. A clear intention might be something like: “I will skim my folder of listserv emails for 10 minutes to read things of interest and to decide which discussion threads I want to keep following.”
Breathe. Take a deep breath. Feel the breath flowing in and out of your nostrils. This helps me to stay grounded in the present moment and in my intention.
Pay Attention to Your Body. When I’m at the computer for any length of time, whether it’s for email or something else, I set a timer to remind me to pay attention to my posture and to take breaks. Just a quick body scan can give you important information (are you tired and slumping in your chair? maybe a short walk would be more energizing than reading email) and help you stay grounded.
Be Patient With Yourself. A key component of mindfulness meditation is nonjudging awareness. If you find yourself ignoring your timer, compulsively checking three email accounts, and feeling like you’ve spent all day in your email, don’t beat yourself up about it. Just stand up, stretch, walk away from the computer, and breathe. Change happens in small steps.
If you were going to be just 10 percent more mindful about your approach to email this week, what might you do? Try it and let us know in the comments!