Study Hacks Blog

Email is Making Us Miserable

March 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.

15 thoughts on “Email is Making Us Miserable

  1. Thank you for the excerpt, I can’t wait to read it tomorrow.

    BTW, thank you for being one of my coaches, especially when it comes to focus and attention. I’ve been decluttering and honing my focus for months, and I feel both a lot more happier and a lot better than a lot of people right now. I’ve already vaccinated twice, and I feel ready to continue improving myself and be the best version of myself possible, which is great for both work and love life. I only found you recently, and yet you’ve already made a major impact in my life. Continue the great work that you do!

  2. Sam says:

    Unfortunately, I have no hope of email improving for me, professionally. The vast majority of emails that I receive are from outside companies & organizations, not within my own company. I work in an industry that LOVES excessive email use (as well as PowerPoint use).
    Not only is there nothing I can do as an individual at the bottom of the food chain within my own company, but multiple organizations across an entire industry would have to make change (in other words, even if my own large company implemented change, it wouldn’t affect most of the email traffic we receive). Until that happens…well, I and my colleagues will continue to reckon with endless inboxes.

  3. Mohit Bhandari says:

    You have made a great observation Cal that our brains take one-on-one interaction extremely seriously. That is so true.

  4. Ada Brown says:

    This is timely – yesterday I congratulated myself that a day of planned shallow work had not left me with the familiar feeling of having simultaneously done a ton of things and achieved nothing. My unanswered emails were scheduled neatly for my next shallow period so as not to leak into a planned deep day today… this morning at 4am I found myself mentally rehearsing what I might say to the unanswered emails… We have to stop this madness!

  5. Sebastien Tarnowski says:

    It’s been awhile since I almost completely ditched email as a personal use. As for the professional side, I prefer scheduled calls or in-person meetings. “Scheduled” because they are more efficient, as you come prepared with questions & (short) presentations.
    What if there’s an “emergency”?
    To be honest, I don’t buy this emergency reason, because there almost never are real emergencies in the vast majority of jobs, especially as far as knowledge workers are concerned…

  6. JR says:

    Perfect articulation of why I hate email and all these so called productivity tools:
    “There are many reasons why e-mail makes us miserable. It creates, for example, a tortuous cycle that increases the amount of work on our plate while simultaneously thwarting, through constant distraction, our ability to accomplish it effectively.”
    Beautifully put.

  7. Pavel says:

    Hi,

    yes, E-mail exchange is generally accepted stanadard. But what is alternative to exchange information on work task? Using instang messenger? Isn’t it even more sresfull? Our company uses both.

    1. Ian Howlett says:

      To me, instant messaging software is far, far worse than email.

      At least people don’t expect or demand a literally instant response with email. With instant messaging I feel compelled to be at my computer the whole time, even though that’s not how I do much of my work most effectively.

      Maybe Cal’s marketing team chose email as the most effective enemy to write a book against, but really the problem is far wider that just email.

      1. Judy says:

        I agree with this comment. When I worked in IT doing project management I easily received several dozen emails per day, which was very stressful, and with all the other interruptions and demands on my time I only got my own work done after everyone else went home. But now I see how my husband must work – his company has a policy that everyone must have their instant messaging turned on while they are at their desk. He gets pinged all day long and is required to respond right away. Psychologically this equates to an emergency situation and is highly stressful and negatively affects productivity.

  8. I look forward to being able to read your book.

    It seems to me that there is an unfortunate conjunction at the root of the harm done by mail to us: it is designed to be an asynchronous way of communication, but as technology evolved, it became almost like a synchronous one : the fact that access to mail is pervasive and that you have notifications on real time makes it like it is synchronous (chat is an extreme version, twitter is in the middle).

    The problem is that on traditional synchronous communications (phone or direct talk) you cannot superpose channels: only one person is talking at a given time (otherwise it is cacophony). It is not the case with email, chat, tweets.

    Another factor is that email was largely symetric: it was a one to one communication. It has evolved to a hugely asymetric way to communicate. Essentially a twit is an open mail to the world. It makes the cacophony louder and creates this impression that answers are directed at you whereas sometimes they are adressed to the world (the value signaling issue is mostly an avatar of this).

    On the subject I really enjoy this opening remark from D. Knuth about email (https://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~knuth/email.html): “I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime”

  9. Filip says:

    Hi,

    I work on daily basis with China, I find email best tool to communicate in comparizon to IM software like weChat, instant messengers just destroy my attention, no space for deep thought, and urge to quick reply

    So in compare to messengers email is just great, well-structured. old-fashioned tool

  10. EA says:

    Cal – good interview with the Art of Manliness podcast!

  11. Filip says:

    I think email is not bad tool in instant messenger world

  12. JR says:

    Cal in Lex Friedman’s podcast, I can’t believe it happened! Although counter to my Deep Work philosophy, I’m going to listen to the whole 3hrs : )

    1. EA says:

      Wow! A 3 hour long interview with Cal! Thanks for sharing it!

Leave a Reply to EA Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *