Is email derailing your writing?

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Is your writing as fast as you want it to be? If not, perhaps it’s time to think about email productivity for writers…

I typically receive somewhere between 200 and 350 emails a day, by which I mean emails that I must answer. (In other words, I’m not including or junk-mail.)

I manage it only moderately well so here’s a new habit I intend to develop in 2016: I want to become better with email.

And by better, I don’t mean faster or more thorough. I mean I want to make email lose the feverish grip it holds on my soul. Paradoxically, I also want to remain polite and conscientious with all the people who email me. (Is this contradiction where the problem lies?)

Here is some information that might shock you: Participants in a 2002 study by Jackson et al found that 70 per cent of emails earned a reaction within six seconds (!) of arrival, and 85 per cent within two minutes. This is the reason that some people call their Blackberries, Crackberries. And, after reading the email, it took study participants more than a minute of regrouping to recover their original train of thought.

Further, more recent research from The McKinsey Global Institute shows that an average employee spends 13 hours a week on email. That equates to roughly 30 per cent of a working week, or 650 hours a year. I gathered these stats from a truly excellent report called A Marketer’s Guide to InBox Zero. Read it; I think you’ll find it interesting.

Why are we so addicted to email? Well, answering an email results in the release of dopamine. This is the chemical our bodies produce that’s the basis for nicotine, cocaine, and gambling addictions.

In the past, researchers described it as a “pleasure” chemical. Now they tend to see it as a “seeking” one. Psychologist Susan Weinschenk says it makes us curious about ideas and fuels our need to search for information. “With the Internet, Twitter and texting you now have almost instant gratification of your desire to seek,” she says. “Want to talk to someone right away? Send a text and they respond in a few seconds.” She concludes: “It’s easy to get in a dopamine-induced loop.”

Making matters worse, unpredictability stimulates dopamine. And what could be more delightfully unpredictable than email? Because you can never tell which time you’ll get the reward of an interesting email, your habit of checking all the time is reinforced. This is true even if most of the time checking your email turns out to be pointless.

Email addiction affects many people but I think it’s worse for writers whose very job demands being in front of a computer all day long. British journalist Andrew Brown believes that the Internet is what alcoholism used to be. It is, he says, “a destroyer first of thought and then of productivity, destructive both of the capacity to reflect, and to react, blurring everything into a haze of talk and endlessly repeated variations on the same experience. (You can read his piece, here.)

Sadly, there’s no simple solution to this problem. In an earlier post I offered five useful suggestions for controlling your email habit. But even though I always keep my email turned off (forcing myself to collect it manually), I still check it far too often.

One of the participants in my current Get It Done program is writing a book on the subject of email (go, Anne Gomez!) and I can hardly wait to read it and learn more. In the meantime, I’m going to try something new that one expert has suggested: rewarding myself for not checking email more than three times per day. I’ll start by making the rewards substantial (an interesting magazine, a book, a meal out) until I have the habit really well established.

Did you know that TV producer Shondra Rhimes doesn’t check her inbox after 7 pm or on weekends? Here’s what she had to say about that, in an NPR interview with Terry Gross: “Work will happen 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year, if you let it.”

Me? I’d like to make my work writing articles and books rather than simply spending it on email.

How much of your life is sucked dry by email? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Jan. 31/16 will be put in a draw for a copy of How to Write by Richard Rhodes. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.