Why Checking Email Frequently is Bad for Your Brain

In 2014, a business partner and I were planning our first conference. And I was simultaneously trying to damage repair with an ad agency that had bought ad spots on The Unmistakable Creative. So, I was checking my email multiple times every hour. And it made me hyperaware that checking email frequently is bad for your brain.

Checking my email frequently decreased my productivity and increased my anxiety A LOT. And I could have easily accomplished these tasks by checking email once a day.

When you don’t check your email for long stretches, it’s natural to worry about a potential crisis that might be brewing in your inbox. But what is surprising is how rarely that happens. When I didn’t check email for an entire day at the end of 2016, nothing terrible happened.

  • A sponsor renewed their contract

How often do you think you check your email? Once, twice, or three times a day? If you think it’s any of those, you’re lying to yourself because it’s much more than that.

Band-Aids on Bullet Wounds

Checking email frequently is bad for your brain
Checking email frequently is bad for your brain
Photographer: Possessed Photography | Source: Unsplash

With the rise of social media and mobile phones, digital distractions started to play a significant role in our professional and personal lives. We created a fire with email and poured gasoline on it with other sources of distraction.

To put the fire out, companies like RescueTime built a distraction blocker; companies like Brain.FM made apps to help us focus, and Notion gave us an all-in-one distraction-free workspace.

All of them are great products. But they are Band-Aids on bullet wounds when it comes to the issue of why checking email frequently is so bad for our brains. These tools alleviate the symptoms of often checking our email. They don’t address the root cause.

Email is a tool. I think it’s a fantastic tool. If you need to deliver information, you need to deliver files. It is far superior to a fax machine or voicemail, or memos. There’s a reason why it spreads so rapidly. So what’s the actual problem? The way we began to work once email was available.

Once email arrived on the scene, we switched over to a workflow that I call the hyperactive hivemind. We said, “Now that we have low friction, digital communication, in addition to just using this to replace what we used to do on the fax machine, replace what we used to do with memos, using this to replace voicemail, let’s now actually work things out like collaborate with back and forth unscheduled messaging.”

Cal Newport, The Unmistakable Creative.

To address the decline in productivity, we need to rewrite organizational operating systems, redesign workflows, and change the way we use email.

People get hired by companies to use their brains to produce value, not check and respond to email. Nobody has ever changed the world by checking and responding to emails.

Paying someone a six-figure salary to spend half their days in their inbox isn’t just bad for productivity, it’s a waste of an employee’s talents and skills. And it’s a waste of a company’s money.

Checking email frequently is bad for your brain. Before you can fix this, you need to understand the impact that email has on your brain.

4 Reasons Checking Email Frequently is Bad Your Brain

Attention is the currency of achievement. And you squander that currency on a low-value task when you’re checking email constantly. But that’s the tip of the iceberg.

1. Email is Like a Slot Machine or Box of Chocolates: You Never Know What You’re Going to Get

People who created email didn’t design it to make it addictive. But the exact mechanisms that make social media addictive make it challenging to resist email. Even as I’m writing this, I’m wondering what’s in my inbox. Jocelyn Glei explains why email is so addictive in the video below.

You can either keep pulling the lever and hoping to win the jackpot. Or you can walk out of the casino because the house always wins.

2. Context Switching and Attention Residue

Most of us have experienced what Cal is describing in the quote above. Say that you’re in the middle of doing deep work (i.e., writing, programming, etc.). You decide to take a peek at your inbox.

You get an email from your kid’s teacher or principal. But you can’t deal with it until you get home. What follows the context-switch (deep work to checking email) is attention residue. When you return to doing deep work, there will be a residue left from the crises in your inbox. And your work will suffer.

3. Reactionary Workflow

Deep work, flow, and all the things that lead to extraordinary performance require an intense focus on cognitively demanding tasks. Checking email frequently leads to a reactionary workflow, which “prevents you from being proactive with your energy,” says Scott Belsky in his book, Making Ideas Happen.

4. Using Your Brain to Check Email Frequently is a Waste of Cognitive Bandwidth

The future of work is increasingly cognitive. This means that the sooner we take seriously how human brains actually function and seek out strategies that best complement these realities, the sooner we’ll realize that the hyperactive hive mind, though convenient, is a disastrously ineffective way to organize our efforts. — Cal Newport, A World Without Email

Our attention span, willpower, and cognitive bandwidth are limited. When you check email frequently, you waste all three on a low-value activity that has minimal impact on progress towards your most important goals.

Say you are an aspiring author who wants to write a book. But you spend an hour or two a day checking and responding to email. That’s an hour you could have spent working on your book or developing a habit of writing 1000 words a day.

I’m guessing you didn’t get a world-class education, become a talented artist, or develop valuable skills to become good at checking and responding to email.

The Hyperactive Hivemind

Checking email frequently is bad for your brain
Checking email frequently is bad for your brain
Photographer: Denys Nevozhai | Source: Unsplash

When you use email to manage processes, you get trapped in what Cal calls the “hyperactive hivemind,” which he describes as follows:

A workflow centered on ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools like email and instant messenger services.

Consider a task like publishing a blog post. The steps in the process for completing the task might look something like this.

  1. Write a shitty first draft

If you manage this process via email, the number of back and forth messages could easily be upwards of 100. And that doesn’t even include all the other crap you have to deal with in your inbox. This is why you need to redesign your workflow, so you’re no longer dependent on the hyperactive hivemind.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can fix a lot of our problems with email by changing how we use it.

Document Your Processes

Photographer: Patrick Tomasso | Source: Unsplash

Even though it might seem like a bunch of bureaucratic bullshit, there’s a reason process plays a significant role in large organizations. Lack of process leads to chaos, and it’s impossible to scale without it.

Documenting your process is vital in building a system to maximize output for creatives and scaling revenue in a business. The simple task of documenting your processes can have a massive impact on your productivity and revenue. And it’s the first step to getting out of hyperactive hivemind workflow.

In any knowledge work organization, small business, or creative endeavor, there’s a process for every task you need to complete. When you think about each task’s process, there’s one idea to consider that Cal Newport posed in our recent interview.

The metric you are trying to minimize when you’re optimizing these processes should be the number of back and forth messaging required. It’s not time. It’s not complexity, it’s not pain or convenience. It is how much unscheduled back and forth messaging is required for this process to complete.

At The Unmistakable Creative, we have processes for publishing podcasts and blog posts. Completing each task requires collaboration between me, an audio engineer, a proofreader, and an artist. Our days would be chaotic with so many people involved if we had to manage these processes via email.

You can use simple checklists, Loom videos, create a mindmap or even a company wiki to document your process.

Redesign the Workflow

SCIENTISTS MEASURE HOW ELECTRONS MOVE IN SYNC WITH ATOMIC VIBRATIONS AT SLAC.     SLAC/STANFORD PROFESSOR AND SLAC STAFF SCIENTIST WITH THE ARPES INSTRUMENT USED TO MEASURE ELECTRON ENERGY AND MOMENTUM IN AN IRON SELENIDE FILM.
SCIENTISTS MEASURE HOW ELECTRONS MOVE IN SYNC WITH ATOMIC VIBRATIONS AT SLAC.     SLAC/STANFORD PROFESSOR AND SLAC STAFF SCIENTIST WITH THE ARPES INSTRUMENT USED TO MEASURE ELECTRON ENERGY AND MOMENTUM IN AN IRON SELENIDE FILM.
Photographer: Science in HD | Source: Unsplash

There’s one question you should ask when you start redesigning your workflow. “Is email the best tool for completing this process?” Most of the time, it’s not. And if you want to take a more radical approach, ask yourself, “How can I avoid using email for this process at all costs.”

Publishing a Blog Post Without the Hyperactive Hivemind Workflow

It doesn’t matter what tool you use to complete the task. The steps in the process don’t change. But workflow design does. Below I’ve outlined the workflow design for publishing a blog post that doesn’t involve sending or replying to a single email.

Part 1: Write the blog post

  1. Capture an idea in our editorial calendar in Notion

Part 2: Prepare for Publication

  1. Ask my assistant to proofread and add links

Because my VA is not knowledgeable about SEO, I have to go into StoryChief, add meta descriptions, and fix any other elements that would improve our search rankings.

How do we do all of this without sending a single email? We complete the entire process of publishing a blog post in Notion. My assistant and illustrator have access to the blog post. And all communication related to publishing takes place in Notion.

The following five steps can help you redesign your workflow, so you’re not at the mercy of the hyperactive hivemind:

  1. Identify the steps in a process for completing a task

After you document your processes and redesign your workflow, you need to automate as much of the workflow as possible.

Automate Your Workflow

Laboratory. Tube (vial) with body material being transported on a track to analyzer in large Dutch lab.
Laboratory. Tube (vial) with body material being transported on a track to analyzer in large Dutch lab.
Photographer: Testalize.me | Source: Unsplash

My best friend, Gareth Pronovost, owns a business called GAP Consulting where he helps companies use Airtable to automate manual processes. But if a company or individual doesn’t know their process for completing a task, his efforts are useless.

Identify the Criteria for Automating Workflows

In any task, there are parts that you can automate and parts of you can’t.

For example, I can’t automate writing a blog post or conducting an interview for the podcast. But there are ancillary activities necessary for publishing a blog post, many of which you can automate.

Four key questions that can help you identify the criteria for automating a workflow:

  1. How long would it take a highly trained person to learn how to do this?

Automating workflow doesn’t always mean using technology. Sometimes you’ll automate part of a workflow with the help of an assistant.

How to Automate the Process for Publishing a Podcast

Before I learned how to automate it, the process for publishing a podcast took about 10 hours a week. After automating it, the same process takes less than an hour a week.

When he designed the system we use to automate every aspect of podcast production other than the interview, Gareth had me write down each step in the process:

  1. Book the guest and schedule a time for the interview

Other than the interview, this entire process is automated using a combination of Calendly, Airtable, and Zapier. I’ve included a video below which explains how to do this. In total, there are no more than three emails.

This process is so refined that I’ve gone for two-three weeks without having a conversation with my audio engineer, and the podcast airs every Monday and Wednesday.

Creating a World, Organization, and Personal Productivity System without Email

By now, it should be pretty clear to you that checking email frequently is bad for your brain and is one of the least effective tools for getting knowledge work done. But email isn’t going away. So you need to learn how to use it in a way that doesn’t hinder your productivity.

Have Different Email Addresses for Different People and Purposes

The best advice on dealing with email I’ve ever heard was from the copywriter, Dan Kennedy, who uses two filters for processing email:

  1. Is this person trying to give me money?

I took this a step further and created a separate email address for my speaker’s bureau, sales team, literary agent, and team members. Nobody else has access to that address.

You can also reduce the load on your inbox by using a service like ThrottleHQ. Throttle generates a unique email address that you can use each time you sign up for a new app, tool, or service. At the end of each day, Throttle sends you a daily digest. When you’re ready to upgrade to the paid version of something, you can update your profile with your primary email address.

Ditch the Hyperactive Hivemind Workflow

If there’s any process you’ve been managing via email, consider using an app like Notion for the same task. For example, our ad-sales team would notify me via email anytime when:

  • They need approval for a brand that was considering advertising on The Unmistakable Creative

While I love getting emails that mean more money, it was still disruptive to my workflow. So, I created a page in Notion for our ad sales team (screenshot below).

They enter any information related to an advertiser on this page, and we never have to send a single email.

Identify Opportunities for Automation

Until my friend, Gareth, showed me what was possible with Airtable, I had no idea I could automate so many parts of the podcast production process. Audit your workflow, and you’ll be amazed by the number of tasks you can automate.

As strange as it might sound, aim to make parts of your job obsolete by automating them. And if you want to do a deeper dive into automation with Airtable, check out Gareth’s courses.

Use a Contact Form

By using forms, people can still contact you without cluttering your inbox. Tally is a fantastic service that provides tons of functionality with its free version. While you can receive notifications via email when someone fills out a form, that defeats the purpose. It’s the same information in two different places.

Checking email frequently is bad for your brain. It’s one of the least valuable activities that knowledge workers spend their time on. But if you’re serious about making progress towards your goals, start to design a workflow that enables you to live in a World Without Email.

Candidate Conversations with Insanely Interesting People: Listen to the @Unmistakable Creative podcast in iTunes http://apple.co/1GfkvkP