These connections aren’t new, of course — productivity gurus and overworked office drones have complained about the horrors of e-mail for years. Tim Ferriss, the self-help virtuoso/obnoxiously perfect human, has ordered his adherents to forsake e-mail all together, save for a few minutes in the morning or late afternoon. In a popular 2011 manifesto, TED’s Chris Anderson described e-mail overload as a tragedy of the commons and proposed a “charter” to encourage people to e-mail less.
To come to these conclusions, the researchers put together a pretty simple experiment. For one week, they asked a group of 124 e-mail-users to keep their inboxes open the whole workday and check them as often as they could. Then, for the second week, they told their subjects to keep their inboxes closed, turn off e-mail notifications on their phones, and only check e-mail three times during their work hours. During both weeks, the researchers sent participants daily questionnaires about things like how much work they got done, how they slept, and how stressed or nervous they felt.
Overwhelmingly, people answered the same way: When they checked their e-mail all the time, they felt stressed. And when they only checked it three times a day, their stress levels decreased — proof, perhaps, that e-mail has truly become “a giant rats nest of voracious demands on our time, energy and sanity.”
That sanity bit is important, it turns out; the researchers also found that constant e-mailing has subtle, downstream consequences that go far beyond topics of productivity and workplace tension. That’s because the stress that’s caused by e-mail causes changes of its own: how you sleep, how you interact with other people, how meaningful and fulfilling everything feels. In fact, this particular study linked daytime stress to a basket of 10 other things, including affect, sleep quality, mindfulness, productivity, social connectedness and “meaning in life.”
Translation? Checking your e-mail less → less stress → happier mood/better sleep/more meaning (!).
We shouldn’t oversell the findings here, of course: Logging out of Outlook for a few hours isn’t going to revolutionize your life. You won’t drop 10 pounds in a week; you won’t finish your work in four hours; you won’t suddenly understand your place in the universe.
But it should be very clear that e-mail, once just another form of communication, has come to represent far more to us, socially and psychologically: It’s a huge, exhausting, Sisyphean task, with surprisingly deep impacts on how we work and what we think.
So next time you feel overwhelmed at work, don’t rush for the spa or yoga studio or bar. Zen may be just a few ignored e-mails away.