Email is Making Us MiserableMarch 1st, 2021 · 15 comments
On Friday, the New Yorker ran an excerpt from the second chapter of my new book, A World Without Email. This chapter focuses on an aspect of the email revolution that’s often overlooked in our discussion of this tool: the ways in which it makes us miserable.
I open the piece by reviewing studies that quantify what many of us have learned through personal experience, which is that the more time we spend emailing, the less happy and more stressed we become.
As I then elaborate:
“Given these stakes, it’s all the more surprising that we spend so little time trying to understand the source of this discontent. Many in the business community tend to dismiss the psychological toll from e-mail as an incidental side effect caused by bad in-box habits or a weak constitution. I’ve come to believe, however, that much deeper forces are at play in generating our mismatch with this tool, including some that get at the very core of what drives us as humans.”
These deeper forces include a fundamental mismatch between the social circuits etched in our brains through evolution and the artificial communication environment cultivated by email. As I detail, our brains take one-on-one interaction extremely seriously, as maintaining strong tribal bonds was critical to Paleolithic survival.
Email, by contrast, creates a setting in which these conversations arrive faster than we can keep up, as demonstrated by our ever-growing inboxes. To our ancient social circuits this is an emergency, leading to a gnawing sense of impending, amorphous danger.
You can, of course, tell yourself that emails are not life and death, but according to research I cite, it’s hard to convince the rest of your brain that this is really true:
“When you skip a meal, telling your rumbling stomach that food is coming later in the day, and therefore that it has no reason to fear starvation, doesn’t alleviate the powerful sensation of hunger. Similarly, explaining to your brain that the neglected interactions reflected by your overfilled in-box have little to do with the health of your relationships doesn’t seem to prevent a corresponding sense of background anxiety.”
We shouldn’t ignore the psychological impacts of the way we work. A successful professional environment is one in which not only do we get things done, but we’re able to do so in a manner that’s sustainable to the human brains involved.
“We’re miserable,” I conclude, “because we’ve accidentally deployed a literally inhumane way to collaborate.”
The solution here is clear, we have to build specific alternatives to the hyperactive hive mind workflow that conquered the knowledge sector once tools like email and Slack arrived.
Now if only someone had written a whole book about what that might look like…
Speaking of A World Without Email, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one more time that if you order the book today (Monday) or tomorrow (Tuesday), you’ll gain access to my Email Academy video series that walks you through how to put the main ideas of the book into immediate action (see here for details on how to register your order). We even made the video clips sharable, so you can use them to try to convert your colleagues into a more enlightened way to work.
More importantly, of course, these early orders really help a book gain momentum, so the even larger “bonus” here is my sincere thanks.