The Gamble Of Email

A study on email conducted by Dr. Thomas Jackson of Loughborough University, England found that it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after interruption by email. So, people who check their email every five minutes waste 8 1/2 hours a week trying to get back on track.

Another study by Tom Stafford, a lecturer at the University of Sheffield, England believes that the same learning mechanisms that drive gambling addicts are also at work with email users. "Both slot machines and email follow something called a 'variable interval reinforcement schedule' which has been established as the way to train in the strongest habits," he says. 'This means that rather than reward an action every time it is performed, you reward it sometimes, but not in a predictable way. So with email, when I usually check it there is nothing interesting, but every so often there's something wonderful-and I get a reward." The reinforcement schedule of email is enough to keep us checking whenever we hear the "bell." Didn't Pavlov have a dog that reacted the same way? Scary!

I know I can fall victim to this "conditioning" but I am amazed at what I see in the workplace. I have been in meetings and the person speaking will stop mid sentence, put the meeting on hold, and check their phone because it beeped. Even when carrying on a one on one conversation with someone, while I am talking with them, they will check their phone for notifications. They will even reply to the message while saying to me, "Uh huh, uh huh." Don't people realize we know they are not paying attention to us or listening to what we are saying when they are looking at their phone or tablet?

Again, take a moment and consider your phone and email habits. I have! Turn off the notifications and plan a time to check email. (It can at least wait until after our meeting!) One recommendation is to check email two times a day-the beginning of the day and an hour before the end of the day. I know that is a little extreme but limiting it to once an hour for some would be a big step. Then you'll be a winner when it comes to managing your time.


Our Juggling Elephants programs address the elephant of email as well as other workplace challenges. Click here to learn more.

Jones LoflinComment