The Weekly Challenge is a column that tackles self-improvement seven days at a time.
Call it serendipity (or, if you're a lame pun lover like me, you could call it serendipit-e): On the same day I embark on a challenge to stop checking my inbox five million times a day, I came across a just-released study that shows how taking a break from e-mail helps curb stress and increase productivity in the workplace.
Conducted by a team out of the University of California, Irvine, the study tracked a test group of employees who were cut off from e-mail and compared them to their frequent e-mail-checking equivalents. You guessed it: The group that wasn't ruled by the almighty "you've-got-mail" chime was less stressed out and less distracted.
Okay. I finished writing two paragraphs – can I check my e-mail now?
This is the sort of semi-addiction I've been nursing for years. If you don't spend the majority of your workday in front of a computer, that might sound crazy, but the fact that "e-mailers anonymous" groups have been around since the mid-aughties proves I'm far from alone.
Before starting this challenge, I paid attention to my habits and found that I typically refresh my home page – my e-mail account, obviously – with a frequency best described as cyber-blink speed. I wouldn't say that I'm a particularly stressed out person, but distracted … okay, seriously, can I check my e-mail now?
One of the key recommendations of the U of C study, lead by informatics professor Gloria Mark, is something called batch e-mailing where an organization allows access to e-mail only once or twice a day to minimize distraction. I decided to implement this policy at my own organization of one, allowing myself one check around 10:30 a.m. and another around 3 pm. This meant no more smartphone stashed on my bedside table, no more falling asleep to the gentle bzzzzzt of incoming messages, no more waking up to check a new message at 4:30 a.m. because Abercrombie and Fitch (a store I have never shopped at) is offering free shipping.
In my waking hours, I was like an alcoholic trying to rationalize why having "just this one drink" wouldn't hurt anybody. You know, like, my entire career will probably implode if I don't check to see if I've gotten an message from so and so. Another slightly disturbing realization is that when left to their own devices, my fingers will start typing www.roge… into the web address bar. I caught myself just before hitting enter several times.
To better understand this bizarre behaviour, I try to contact Prof. Mark. In keeping with my experiment, I do so by telephone, which is certainly not as convenient or cheap (she lives in California) as firing off a quick e-mail. It is also not nearly as effective. I start to feel like Lloyd Dobler leaving three increasingly stalker-ish sounding voice-mails.
There is also the matter of how much enjoyment can come from keeping in touch via e-mail. After just a few days, I was feeling more focused and enjoying the uninterrupted sleep, but missing the near constant e-mail chain I have running with my best girlfriends. There is a conception that e-mail is a natural enemy of intimacy, but I would argue that years of messages covering everything from dating disasters to favourite movies to friends' babies to a recent debate on which 1990s supermodel we would most like to be (Stephanie Seymour) have only strengthened our bonds. Communication purists might say, "pick up a phone," but why when the e-conversation is so enjoyable? Point is, by day three I was feeling incredibly isolated.
I was also getting a lot more work done. The U of C study tracked productivity by installing spyware into its subject's computers. Those with access to e-mail changed screens (meaning windows) a whopping 37 times an hour. That means that, on average, they were never focused on the same thing for more than 1.6 minutes. Subjects cut off from e-mail changed screens half as frequently.
The issue of focus goes far beyond the workplace. In his book The Tyranny of E-mail, John Freeman talks about how when we are attached to our e-mail-rendering devices, we are only partially available to our kids/partners/friends/pets, so while neglecting my inbox, I tried to be 100 per cent engaged in what I was doing – making dinner with my boyfriend, watching Game of Thrones. I also read more, went outside more and played more Tetris – because apparently every time-sucking, brain-rotting addiction must be replaced by an even more time-sucking, brain-rotting addiction.
I never did hear back from Prof. Mark. (Turns out voice mail is about as relevant to modern communication practices as the carrier pigeon). I am also back to checking e-mail on a more regular basis, though I have tried to cut down and even followed one reader's suggestion to turn off the message indicator bzzzt on my phone. Baby steps, people.
HOW READERS FARED
I have an iPhone, but I never check my e-mail before I get into the office in the morning. Why would I want my workday to start two hours earlier?
– Paul Galbraith
Does work e-mail count? It would be impractical to only check it twice a day at work. But I try to check my work e-mail less from home now. I have an iPhone and I was looking at it every time it would buzz when a new e-mail came in. It's really hard not to ignore an unread e-mail. But it was so distracting and my partner was frustrated with me constantly looking at my phone, so I've disabled the e-mail-notification function. So helpful.
– Carley Fortune
Go on vacation.
– Catherine MacInnis
THE NEXT CHALLENGE
Cleaning out your. This week, try not buying any groceries and use up those dried chick peas, frozen strawberries, soup mix and whatever else is lurking in your cupboards and freezer. Let us know how you fare. Sign up at fb.com/globelifestream