We seriously need to end email! Or at least the way we work with it. I read at the weekend that most people spend a massive 15 hours of their week checking and responding to emails. Since that is only an average, my guess is that it’s far, far more than this….  Long ago email was heralded to make our lives easier and FACILITATE effective communication, even productivity. Today it does anything BUT these two really vital elements it was originally designed for…

Email is still used widely as a source of business communication even though how we use email is changing and likely to shift more to in-company instant messaging platforms for those newly entering the workplace. With the rise of social networks, collaborative tools, and mobile devices, email may start to phase out.

There is an implicit expectation to respond to emails and rapidly. There isn’t necessarily any reward or bonus for doing so and most of the time email takes away from the actual real work. It also zaps our energy and our time.
Some organisations recognise that overuse of email and constantly checking email impacts performance and some companies have “‘email “‘policies”’. These policies may include when to use email (with some companies adopting a strict ‘no evening and weekend emails’ rule), appropriate content, guidance on how to write email, use of password-protected accounts, use of company email signatures, email etiquette and managing information overload. Sounds great but rarely works in practice.

We have an irresistible urge to check email and we will do this compulsively several times a day. The funny thing is that the more often we do this the stronger that urge becomes. You may start your work day with the best intentions – a healthy breakfast, that morning cup of coffee, chatting to colleagues, planning your day even – and then the inevitable happens: you log into your email and that’s it. This simple action has become automatic behaviour and takes up our attention and often at the best part of the day when we should be using that focus and attention for real work. Alongside the LinkedIn update we need to get done and all the other instant messaging, Tweets, texts, updates and notifications competing for (and getting) our attention. It’s compulsive behaviour because it feeds into the dopamine loop, the reward system in our brains. We literally cannot help it. So we need to first of all control that dopamine loop by turning off cues and automatic notifications, training ourselves to have specific points in our day for checking email and becoming more aware of how speedily we respond to our phones. If we can learn to switch off our smartphones and check email only at designated points during the day this will have an immediate impact on the brain and immediately make us more effective. Ha! Easier said than done, I know….

Dopamine is stimulated by unpredictability. When something happens that is not exactly predictable, that stimulates the dopamine system. Our emails and twitters and texts show up, but we don’t know exactly when they will, or who will have sent them. It’s unpredictable and this is exactly what stimulates our dopamine system. So we need to get out of the loop.

How to get out of that loop: Turning off cues: This is one of the of the most important things you can do to prevent or stop a dopamine loop, and to be more productive: and that is to turn off the cues. Adjust the settings on your mobile device and on your laptop, desktop or tablet so that you don’’t receive the automatic notifications. Those automatic notifications are actually causing you to be like a rat in a cage. If you want to get work done you need to turn off as many auditory and visual cues as possible. It’’s the best way to prevent and break the dopamine loops. One of the most effective things I have ever done is to switch off email on my phone. It has been a big breakthrough for me and has stopped me from checking email so often. It has made no difference at all to my ability to respond to or write email when I need to but it has made a huge difference to stopping the dopamine loop that I had started to be part of. It also means that I use commuter time or travel time to work rather than respond to or write email. Create new cues this is like creating new rules for your brain – I look at my Smartphone after 8 am. I switch off my phone in the evenings. I check email only at set times and never first thing in the morning.

If we can learn to switch off our smartphones and check email only at designated points in the day this will have an immediate impact on the brain and also make us more effective. Doing this also impacts how we communicate via email too. The problem with responding to emails as soon as they arrive means is that we take less time to reflect and think about how we are responding. Because there is also a perceived expectation that emails “‘must be”’ (why?) responded to immediately we may fire off a response that might be inappropriate, badly thought out or not even needed. Even worse, our brain isn’t able to distinguish between the relative importance of our emails so that they all become important. Mix that with social media and you have a lethal cocktail of the brain constantly reacting and communicating less effectively.

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