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Why Email Should Die (And How You Can Help Kill It)

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by Ryan Anderson

on 29 May, 2015

Ever had one of those nights where you dream of outracing some assassin or dueling with your dream-world arch-nemesis – whoever that may be – and you wake up feeling more exhausted than you were when you lay down?

As bad as that may be, even worse is its waking-life equivalent: when you work yourself ragged all day and discover at the end that you haven’t done one important thing. It’s 5pm and your tasks have been multiplying like rabbits on the Australian continent of your to-do list. Dismay, despair, hopelessness.

We can’t solve your sleep problems, but we’ve got a suggestion for your work nightmare:

Have you considered killing email?

too much email, not enough work

Email saps our time, distracts us from our important work, and brings us so much stress psychologists just gave the condition its own word. Keep reading to learn how email has grown from a dream of productivity to the opposite – and how a new generation of workers are killing email and breathing life into something new.

Email Death Knell?

Email will be obsolete by 2020,” proclaims John Brandon, writer for Inc. Facebook’s cofounder Dustin Muscovits claims we’ve already reached “peak email.” And each month a new CEO bombastically announces he or she is giving up the stuff like it’s gluten.

But aren’t these lines just attention-grabbers? After all, right now 100 billion emails are sent and received every day in this country. That’s expected to grow to 132 billion by 2017. That seems pretty lively, right?

But it’s precisely the constantly-growing bloat of email that makes it unusable for more and more workers. Dinosaurs, too, looked awfully big before they went extinct.

Why are companies abandoning email?

The biggest reason people give for abandoning email is time. There’s not enough of it to spend manicuring your inbox.

The average corporate worker sends and receives 105 emails a day. And of that amount internal estimates find only around 15 are useful. The McKinsey Global Institute found that social managers spend almost a third of their time just managing email. Take a typical 5-day work-week and just cross out an entire day and a half, every week, because that’s what is going to be slurped up by email. Or in a month, tear off more than an entire week.

The pressure to monitor and quickly reply to email appears to cause worse sleep, more profound burnout and more missed days of work for health reasons. -Journal of Occupational Health Psychology

But it’s even worse than the amount of time lost to the emailing itself, because email is a perpetual distraction machine. Checking email is most devastating to your productivity when you’re in a work groove (or ‘flow’). You’re thinking it’s just a simple, one-minute response you’ll shoot off — but it will take around 25 minutes for you to get your groove back.

The distraction machine is brutal. Some workplaces are finding their workers focus on one task, on average, for a measly 3 minutes and 5 seconds.

We lose a day and a half to email

Email is a hatchet we use to chop our time up into unusably small fragments. We should give the medium its due: it did bring a revolutionary speed to communication (the alternative is called “snail mail” for a reason). But even with the best spam filters, strict bouts of unsubscribing, and silencing of social media notifications, email has expanded beyond its usefulness. This is why one professional found that quitting email and moving her communication to other platforms saved her, on average, three hours a day.

We see the same results from our Filevine users. Firms using Filevine are reporting a massive increase in work capacity when they bring all their communications “under one roof” instead of parsing through email, instant messages, sticky notes, etc.

But is it actually possible to quit?

This is Your Brain on Email

Henry David Thoreau sighed “Our life is frittered away by detail. . . . Simplify, simplify.” And this was in the 1840s. If old Henry caught a glimpse of the average inbox today, we’d be witness to a Transcendentalist face-palm.

“Our life is frittered away by detail. . . . Simplify, simplify.” – Henry David Thoreau

Our life is being frittered away by so many email details that last month’s Journal of Occupational Health Psychology coined a new word for the stress. It’s called “telepressure,” and it refers specifically to the anxiety associated with email and the perceived pressure to quickly respond. Talking to Time, the researcher noted that telepressure appears to cause worse sleep, more profound burnout and more missed days of work for health reasons. “When people don’t have this recovery time,” she says, “it switches them into an exhaustion state, so they go to work the next day not being engaged.”

email causes increased burnout

This is backed up by research at UC Irvine, finding that people who check their work email more frequently “exhibit higher states of stress, and less focus.” The sensation of overwhelm can be so intense that, according to consultant Linda Stone, 80% of professionals stop breathing for a moment when they open their inbox. She calls the experience “email apnea.”

80% of professionals stop breathing for a moment when they open their inbox.

What’s going on in our heads? Brains that are restless and on the hunt, even if they can’t say exactly what they’re so eager to find. In email-checking mode we are constantly scanning for that new distraction, unable to settle into deep, creative thinking on a specific problem. And email rarely disappoints from churning out that new distraction, since using it to send messages generates more messages back to you, like a digital hamster wheel.

When Orpheus ventured into the underworld, he saw Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill that always rolled backwards just a step short of the summit. He saw a parched Tantalus reaching down for water that always receded just past his grasp. A modern Hades would be certain to contain a professional just about to reach Inbox Zero.

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As one CEO puts it: “What kind of dawned on me is that e-mail is a form of communication that you can’t control.” He continued: “You can screen a phone call. You can turn off instant messaging. But e-mail has become so ingrained in our work method that people expect rapid response, and you absolutely are not in control of your work day.”

So why don’t more of us follow Papa Thoreau’s advice to “simplify, simplify” – if not growing beans at a cabin out in the woods, then at least when it comes to cutting out email? Well, because we’re hooked.

You’ve Got an Addiction!

Remember that spark of delight you felt when your old AOL account chirped You’ve Got Mail?

We suspect that if they made a movie by that name now, it would mostly show a haggard, grey-faced executive muttering expletives. But those early rewards we experienced — and the occasional pleasant message we receive even today — are still ingrained in our brains, feeding an email addiction. Psychotherapist Nancy Colier explains:

“Email triggers a part of the brain that I call “lottery brain.” It is the part of the brain that produces the thought/hope/belief that miracles can happen, and specifically, to us — personally.”

Breaking the email-checking habit can be harder than we’d expect. But one thing that might make it easier is having a suitable replacement — if we dropped email, what would we replace it with?

What Workers Want

Compartmentalization . . .

Counterintuitively, say tech analysts, we shouldn’t want to replace email with one thing. The fact that it’s the go-to depot for social messages, work memos, and Twitter notifications is part of its danger. What we really need while we’re at work is a system that is dedicated simply to those internal messages, compartmentalized from other distractions. When we want to have social interaction, we can go to Facebook or Twitter: these may be addictions in themselves, but at least we aren’t as likely to be forced to monitor them regularly as part of our work obligations. We should be able to choose to turn off that purely social forum in order to focus on our work.

AND Internal Unification

Business communication writer Richard Hughes explains that email “fragments corporate knowledge,” since it stores messages in separate email folders of different individual employees. A tech analyst explained to The New York Times that the format leads to stagnation: “E-mail is largely arranged along a linear timeline, with little thought given to context and topic.”

(This unwieldy, fragmented framework might lend some credence to the latest ironic twist in the NSA controversy: even with their surveillance superpowers, they claim to have no way to search their own employees’ email.)

A shared work communication platform, along the lines of Filevine, means corporate knowledge can be available to all team members, even brand new ones, transmitted from a shared central space or project file, and sorted contextually.

Accountability

There isn’t a way to ensure that someone actually saw your email, or will do anything about it. This is why you send those annoying, throat-clearing “did you see this?” follow-up emails. A platform designed for work communication needs to have a way to directly schedule tasks to someone’s to-do list.

Precision and Brevity

Emails are usually too long, and load too many topics into one message. One tech writer claims:

People naturally put much more into an email, perhaps in an unconscious effort to amortize that email interface tax overhead across more content. People feel that since they are already “bothering” to write an email, they might as well take the time to go into all kinds of detail, perhaps even adding a few more things that they’re thinking about.

This is why emails can be more overwhelming than instant messages, texts, or tweets, all of which are more likely to keep the message as concise as possible. The workplace replacement for email needs to be geared toward shorter, clearer, more actionable messages. Longer, more nuanced texts can be better as blog posts, wikis, or shared project notes.

Are you saying Email should die right now? Like, today?

Obviously I’m not saying email needs to die until it’s dead completely. We’ve still gotta get our Amazon order confirmations somewhere, right? (along with your aunt’s racist forwards). It just needs to be killed off from the space of primacy it has in our working lives.

One place to start is right here. Check out Filevine. Get a free tutorial to see how a new platform for your workplace communication can help you do more with less stress.