Remember that little surge you felt when you logged on to AOL and heard those three little words?   “You’ve got mail!”  When was the last time that you felt that happy opening your inbox? Those days are long gone. For most of us, keeping up with email is an exhausting ride on the never-ending hamster wheel.

Your Brain on Email

How much time to you think you spend reading or responding to email every day?  According to a recent study conducted by the McKinsey Global Institute, we spend 13 hours a week – about one-fourth of our workweek – managing email. Other sources suggest it’s even higher than that.  A New York-based app called Locket found that the average user checks the phone around nine times an hour at peak times and unlocks it 110 times a day.

It’s not just the time spent on the actual email.  According to a University of California-Irvine study, we lose 20 minutes every time we shift our focus from the current task to our inbox. Call it an addition or call it a “productivity sinkhole.” Either way, it consumes a significant part of our lives.

It’s not just the number of messages; it’s the range of emotional stimuli contained within them.  Experts maintain that up to 300 different emotional stimuli are delivered to the brain in just an hour of email focus. An email from your boss asking for a report or a project, a message from a family-member announcing a birth or an engagement, news from a colleague that he’s lost his job….the inbox can take you through a huge range of emotions and stressors. Sure, there are some good ones – the vacation pictures from your sister or an amazing new recipe that you can’t wait to try – but research on the negativity bias shows that our brain focuses more on bad news. It takes 3-5 positive emotions to balance out one negative one.

research on the negativity bias shows that our brain focuses more on bad news

Recent research has explored how email affects the brain. In one study, researchers investigated how the frequency of checking email affects well-being over a period of two weeks. The first week, randomly selected participants were asked to limit checking their email at limited and specific scheduled times through the day.  During the second week, participants could check their email as many times as they wanted to. When they limited their email checking, participants reported significantly lower stress than during the unlimited email use week. Obviously, a decrease in stress results in an increase in overall well-being.

You’re not really Multitasking!

You’re not really Multitasking!

Cognitive scientists believe that checking email less often may reduce stress in part by cutting down on task switching. While many of us think we are multitasking ninjas, neuroscience tells us that there really is no such thing as multitasking. As incredible as the human brain is, it has a tough time focusing on two demanding tasks simultaneously.  Rather, your brain just bounces back and forth between tasks.

Interrupting that PowerPoint to stop and check your inbox does more than just slow you down on the presentation. It actually zaps your cognitive resources and your time.  Constant task switching changes the structure of the brain physically and chemically impacting concentration, recall, and overall cognitive performance. The more you bounce back and forth between tasks and email throughout the day, the more inefficient you get at each task. According to a University of California-Irvine study, we lose 20 minutes every time we shift our focus from the current task to our inbox.

Interrupting that PowerPoint to stop and check your inbox

Further research shows that the stress of email overload also impacts impulse control.  The stress generates cortisol and that increase of cortisol makes it harder for the prefrontal cortex – the rational, thinking brain that weighs actions against consequences – to do its job effectively.  We’ve all been there…  pound out a response to an email and hit send before stopping to think about how that message may be received or whether that message should be sent at all.

So, if you want to keep your rational thinking brain in charge, increase your productivity and decrease your stress level, you might think about turning the email notifications off occasionally.  Even if you just start with 30-minute chunks of time, you’ll save your brain power for the really important stuff instead of dumping it into your inbox.

Author Bio:

Dr. Melissa Hughes is the President and Founder of The Andrick Group and the author of Happy Hour with Einstein.  Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, Melissa incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to improve the way we think, learn, communicate and collaborate.


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