Have you ever wistfully imagined all of your emails disappearing in a puff of smoke? Caroline Webb, CEO of Sevenshift, executive coach, and author of How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioral Science to Transform Your Working Life, recently joined Dan Ariely to discuss the all-too-common onslaught of email overload. Dan is a Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and author of the New York Times bestseller Predictably Irrational. Together, these experts offer up their insights about taming “the monster” of email, from the complex psychology of expectation to the subtle tyranny of notifications.
Caroline: You’ve been thinking about the monster of email for a long time.
Dan: Yes, I got my first email account in probably ’91. At that point, you would sit there and just wait for an email to arrive. It was no problem. Since then the volume has increased a lot. People also started offloading tasks on others. What’s easier, for you to find the reference yourself or to email the author and say, “Hey, could you send me the paper?”
Then I was on sabbatical ten years ago and I had an outgoing email that said, “I’m on sabbatical. I don’t do email. You want to write me, here’s the physical address.” It was an amazing year. Amazingly productive.
But since then email has become a work tool, so it’s much harder to say, “I don’t do this.” It’s a blessing and a curse. The other limit is, because of my injury, I can’t type that much, but the workplace demands more and more writing. Let’s say a book has 70,000-80,000 words. If you write 700 or 800 words a day, you will write 3 books a year. The real work of writing a book actually requires very little writing. Communication electronically requires a tremendous amount.
Caroline: Yes, all the time. I was at McKinsey for 12 years, and I was one of those classic people getting 200 emails a day — which is not that extraordinary. I saw some figures suggesting that the average is just over 100 emails a day.
Dan: For the people who use email at the workplace, it’s incredible.
Caroline: There was a study that suggested that people took, on average, a minute and a half to process an email. Now that actually seems quite short to me, but if you’ve got 200 emails coming in, you end up spending five hours. Of course you can’t do that. So of course everyone has a backlog, and everyone feels stressed about their email. There’s psychological guilt the whole time, because there’s still a sense that email is like a letter that you must reply to.
Dan: Yeah, I have a very hard time not responding. It’s like somebody taps you on the shoulder – how do you not turn around and say hi?
“Email shows up and says, ‘Answer me,’ whereas time for thinking doesn’t do that.”
Caroline: There’s something I loved that you said once about email. “Email shows up and says, ‘Answer me,’ whereas time for thinking doesn’t do that.” It’s so invasive and intrusive if you let it be.
Dan: And the intrusiveness is in multiple ways. One is just in notifications. There was a recent study in which they took some undergrads and said, “Solve some math problems and we’ll pay you by how many you can solve.” Then they asked for their phones and put them aside and said, “Don’t pick up your phone,” but they took their phone number and they would text or email them from time to time, the phone vibrating. You can see the reduction in performance.
Caroline: Absolutely, because the brain’s working memory has such a small amount of capacity – three or four chunks of information. If a buzz takes up one of those chunks, you get less IQ to play with.
Dan: It’s not just that. Email is a really wonderful example of random reinforcement. Skinner showed a long time ago that randomness is powerful. Something buzzes, and you could say to yourself, “This must be one of those emails that is completely uninteresting — odds are it’s another spam or email I don’t want to pay attention to.” But that’s not what you say to yourself. You say, “This must be one of those…”
Caroline: It might be that wonderful email where I’ve won a prize.
Dan: A prize, an old friend, a meeting is cancelled, something is happening.
Caroline: Yeah, absolutely. And I wrote an article about five years ago on the cognitive impact of multitasking, and the reaction to that was enormous. Everybody said, “Yes! This is an enormous problem.” There was such an outpouring of angst. I think a lot more people now know that when we multitask we make between two and four times as many errors, and it slows us down. So we need to focus more, singletask more.
Dan: So, imagine we set up a world where we say, “generally I want to be notified, but not when focusing.” How does that work? It’s like you say to yourself, “I want to pick up the phone every time, but not when I’m driving.”
Caroline: I have a low-tech solution to that. I simply turn my phone onto airplane mode for periods of time during the day. But I also find I have to close down the browser on my laptop. If I don’t do both, then I’ll see my hand stealing towards the mouse as if it’s not part of me. Closing down both and saying, “This is the time when I’m focusing,” and then batch process my email a few times a day – that helps. But you’ve got a fancier, higher-tech solution, haven’t you?
Dan: I’ve tried a lot of things. It’s a continuous struggle. I used to have two computers in the office and one had only things for work and one had a mix. It made the switch from one to another much more deliberate. It became harder because there are many things that cross over. Imagine if you used Facebook Messenger for work stuff. All of a sudden, what are the odds that you will go onto Facebook and be tempted by other things? Facebook’s whole business model is to tempt you!
Dan: So I do a few other things. Somebody helped me write a system called Shortwhale, a web-interfaced email. With it I ask people to tell me, what’s the topic of this? You want a meeting, you want a chat? It’s a pull-down menu.
The other thing I ask is the time frame for answering. Every time you get an email from somebody, they have an intention, a goal, an idea of what they want, and you’re supposed to read this email and infer what they want from you. It’s not always easy. So I said, let me ask a bit more effort from the people sending the email. Tell me, what is this about and when do you want an answer. The choices are the end of the day, the end of the week, end of the month, and no response necessary.
Caroline: Do you find people use it responsibly?
Dan: The vast majority, yes.
Caroline: You don’t get people saying, “I must have an answer right now!”?
“When I get emails that say, ‘No response necessary,’ I’m so grateful.”
Dan: I get some of those. But the percentage of people who say, “Drop everything and answer me now” is less than 2%. And I am shocked by how many emails I get that say “no response necessary.” We have this in our hands – we can do it in every email – but people don’t think about it. It’s not part of the interface. When I get emails that say, “No response necessary,” I’m so grateful. I say to myself, “Thank you very much for this, now I don’t need to answer.” So, for emails that say “answer me now” I get a notification in my inbox, but the other emails get pulled into folders that help me do them later. Batch processing is very helpful. The whole email notification system is anti-batch processing.
Caroline: I just turn notifications off. Lots of different email programs have the option for you to prioritize certain people to make sure that their messages come through. In general, people aren’t using these functionalities at all. Even the most basic email program usually has some filtering and folder-ing capacity, and very few people aggressively use this. They’re just seeing it all as an incoming mass and then taking each email one by one.
Dan: Yeah. There’s this term, “structured procrastination” — which is a beautiful term for the feeling of making progress even if you’re not. There is this incredible satisfaction of deleting email, cleaning up things, responding, as if somebody’s going to get to the end of their life and say, “I’ve achieved ‘inbox zero’ 72 times in my lifetime.”
On top of the Shortwhale system, we have another email program called Emailio to make the process of creating rules much easier.
Part of that is about saying how do we figure out what is our cognitive capacity right now? What do we feel like dealing with? I flew to New York this morning — there’s a different kind of email that you want to deal with at 4:30 in the morning waiting for a flight. But it can happen that you get an email and it’s going to take you 20 minutes to respond. It’s painful and difficult and annoyingly complex. You read it, you look at it, you understand what you’ve got to do, and then you say, “I really don’t feel like it.”
Caroline: “Go away.”
Dan: “Go away.” You put it away and come back three hours later, look at it again and say to yourself, “What was this about?” You remember, and then you’ve wasted the same amount of time again. So knowing what kind of mood you need to be in to deal with what kind of emails is incredibly useful.
Caroline: Yes, I separate what I call “thinking emails” that I know I’m going to have to handle in a very specific frame of mind, where email happens to be the medium but responding is really a proper piece of work.
Dan: And hopefully you don’t delay them forever! How do you also make sure that you go back to them?
Caroline: What I often do is send a holding response to somebody saying, “I’ve got your email. I’m thinking about it. I’ll write back to you.” Often, when something takes a lot of work, the temptation is to think, “Well, you can only get back to them once you have the answer.” Then in the meantime, the other person is sitting there in a state of uncertainty, they don’t know whether you got the email, hated the email, are never going to speak to them again. I find a holding response is a really good way of managing my flow so I’m working on my own timeline.
Dan: How do you deal with the email that you’re going to never respond to? Imagine if you have more emails than hours in the day.
Caroline: I have a standard set of responses that I’ve drafted. Actually, I was inspired by your website, where it says, “If you want me to tell you that I’m agreeing with your email, click here…”
Caroline: Exactly. It was years ago when I first saw those and thought, “Oh, that’s quite clever!” I don’t do videos, but I wrote standard emails which I can customize.
And then are times when I simply go offline. Earlier this year, I had five days where I was really needing a digital detox. I checked in once a day to stay in touch with my loved ones over instant messaging, and that was it. It was very cleansing. You do have to set it up beforehand, give people notice, write the right kind of auto responders. But it didn’t cause any problems. I got a lot of responses from people saying “I must do that too.”
Dan: Going off the grid is an easier decision in many ways.
Caroline: Yes, because it’s binary.
Dan: But what you do with a regular day? You have 300 emails. How do you decide what not to respond to? Yes, you can make things more efficient. You can batch things, write auto-responders. But let’s say it goes up to 400. At some point it’s going to be unmanageable. How do you decide what to never respond to?
Caroline: That’s a really good question. I think your solution — about putting a bit of the load on the person sending the email — really helps.
Dan: It’s a bit obnoxious, but it helps.
Caroline: Historians say that after books became more common, there was a period of time before things like the alphabetical index were invented. We’re kind of in that period where we haven’t yet invented the tools and norms we need to handle email. And maybe that’s one that we need to move towards, the norm of people being more deliberate about saying when they want a response. You can be a model for this even if you don’t have a fancy email system. You can, in your emails to people, model what you want back. You can say, “No response needed.” You can say, “I’d love a response by XYZ time.” You can be brief. I love your emails – your emails are so short and to the point.
Have you heard of the “five.sentenc.es” movement? The idea, as the name suggests, is that you keep your emails to five sentences. It’s really good discipline. It’s a bit like writing a tweet. You have to fit it into the space available.
“There’s so many wonderful things in these communications. I would not want to give up all the magical things that happened.”
Dan: At some point we have to figure out what the trade-off is, while being polite. Because it’s a beautiful thing that people write to me. I can’t tell you how many high school science fairs I’ve helped win. These high school kids write me these really long, very touching emails about what they want to do, and I write them back and propose experiments and they write me back and say how it worked. There’s so many wonderful things in these communications. I would not want to give up all the magical things that happened.
Caroline: You don’t want to cut that off, but you also need to be treating it with the right kind of priority. Every yes is a no to something else. So you need to be really clear what your yesses are. What is it that is actually most important? I do think it’s easier when you just decide to totally take yourself away. When I was writing my book, How To Have A Good Day, I set an auto-responder which managed people’s expectations, and then I had the choice of when I wanted to engage with them. It wasn’t that I was saying, “Go away.” It was just saying, “For the foreseeable future, I’m focused on the book, and I hope you understand.” I must admit, it was tempting to just leave it on there for ever.
Dan: Maybe that’s why people write books.
Caroline: Right! To legitimately go undercover…
Dan: It’s easier to write a book than to write email!
The challenge with email is that it’s not really a communication tool. It’s just a pipe – you get simple requests, meeting invites, promotions, receipts. Other channels — texting, Whatsapp, even Snapchat — it’s much more defined what they’re for. And because of that, you can ask, “Am I in the right mood for this?” Have you tried Slack?
Caroline: I know what it is. When I’m giving speeches about the problem with multitasking, especially if I’m in the Bay Area, a lot of people will say, “What about Slack? Is Slack ‘of the devil’?” I say it’s like anything else. You set norms with your team on when you use it and what you use it for. It doesn’t mean you have to stay online all the time. You can choose when you want to take yourself out. We do that much less than we should, across all communication channels.
Dan: The question here is who is the “you.” The moment you’re part of an organization, it’s very hard not to participate if other people are expecting you to.
Caroline: I’ve seen time and again how encouraging people to be bold and clear when setting their boundaries — it works. People think it’s going to be terrible and you’ll be thought to be not a team player. But if you think about times when you are simply not available — maybe you’re asleep, or on a plane that doesn’t have WiFi — the world doesn’t end. There’s definitely some benefit to experimenting with setting boundaries, saying, “Guys, I’m offline for the next hour while I focus on writing this report.”
Dan: It’s not just the time, it’s also the volume. I tried Slack, and mostly I use it now to ask people to put stuff there and then I just ignore it. It takes this whole bunch of things that people send me that I might want to go back to one day and sends it straight to archive.
“My first manager talked about a time when she had a physical inbox, with papers—do you remember those?—and she took the inbox into her garden and burned it because she was really feeling overwhelmed.”
Caroline: I do think that over time what will happen is a norm will emerge when you respond to the things you really need to respond to, and everything else becomes junk mail. That’s effectively how I’m running it now. There are people who come into my primary inbox and they are all starred or flagged in a way that makes it clear what’s important and what’s not. Then there is this enormous tail, which I don’t engage with and I’m okay with that.
My first manager talked about a time when she had a physical inbox, with papers – do you remember those? – and she took the inbox into her garden and burned it because she was really feeling overwhelmed. This became a bit of a fantasy for me! Then, when I left McKinsey and set up my own company, it came true, because it turned out to be really difficult for me to take my backlog of emails with me. And I noticed that nothing terrible happened. I think we’re going to develop a sense of ease with that tail that doesn’t get engaged with.
What are you personally working on now in your email handling and what’s one piece of advice you’d give people?
Dan: The big thing is to figure out when to do email and when not to do email. We did all kinds of research finding that people get into the office, they’re in their peak productivity hours, 9 to 11, and they first get into this task of looking at email, being upset with the amount of email, and then dealing with the easy things first. When, in fact, it should be the complex things you deal with.
So I try not to open email first thing in the morning. Instead I try to figure out what are the things that I really need to work on to make progress. The sad outcome of this is that I have a big log of email to deal with at other hours of the day, but the first thing is to figure out what’s the priority, and when in the day are you in your top shape to deal with that.
I also have another rule that I don’t do email on flights anymore. I decided that I don’t enjoy flights enough, that it’s time to do something fun. I read or watch movies.
Caroline: For me, flights are my chance to clear the backlog and feel incredibly zen when I land.
The common point here is to be mindful and deliberate about when you’re doing email, making sure that there are times when you’re not doing it so that you’re not impairing your ability to focus and to do deep work and deep thinking.
Dan: The other thing is to figure out a new social agreement around email, which I’m not sure how to do yet.
Caroline: I think you’re on the forefront of people experimenting so you should keep the world posted on what you’re doing personally. And I definitely think that being explicit about when people can expect a response from you, sending holding responses, asking people to be very open about when they want a response: these are going to be part of our solution. They have to be.
Dan: So [laughing], shall we go and do our email now?
This conversation has been edited and condensed.