The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How many hours of your life have you wasted on work email? Try our depressing calculator.


Email is like the dirty laundry of the Internet. I do not mean that metaphorically. It’s this burdensome time-suck that everyone hates but that remains essential to functioning.

Any cubicle drone with a corporate email address knows this well already, of course, but a new report from Adobe describes the problem with some pretty startling numbers. According to its data, which is sourced from a self-reported survey of more than 1,000 white-collar workers in the country, we spend an average of 4.1 hours checking our work email each day. That’s 20.5 hours each week, more than 1,000 hours each year, more than 47,000 hours over a career.

In that time, you could have learned two dozen languages. Or hiked the Appalachian Trail 100 times! Instead, you were tapping out gems like “plz acknowledge receipt, ty” and “ok sounds good, let’s meet at nine.”

Quiz: Can we guess your age and income, based solely on the apps on your phone?

It’s not terribly difficult to see how this situation came to be, though seeing how to get out of it has proved a bit trickier. Despite the rise of chat apps such as Slack, analyses by market researchers, such as the Radicati Group, have shown that people are sending and receiving more work emails than ever. And in addition to the sheer volume, the Adobe survey highlights another complicating factor: People increasingly expect their correspondents to answer emails within hours, if not minutes — putting pressure on everyone to constantly monitor their inboxes.

How much time is wasted in this quest for ever more responsive email? You do not have to do the math yourself — we made a calculator to answer this very question. It is, needless to say, not perfectly predictive — we can’t account for, you know, the advent of Zuckerbergian telepathy or other future changes to workplace email. (The Radicati Group predicts, for instance, that we will receive slightly more emails and send slightly fewer in the next few years.)

But assuming some rough constants, such as a 250-day work year, an eight-hour workday and a 23-minute recovery period after each email break, we can ballpark roughly how much of your time you’ll lose to work email, if you continue at your current rate. The results are — for me, at least — not particularly pretty.

Is there any way to spend less time with the technology that Fast Company’s John Pavlus once called “the most reviled ever”? There are certainly lots of personal hacks and how-to’s on the subject. Many companies have also begun embracing alternative modes of online workplace communication. Where you would once plod out an email, the thought goes, you can now whip up some shorter, more elegant thing in Asana or Slack.

That does not necessarily improve on the distraction of email, though. You still have those constant, time-sensitive pings, those time-sucking expectations of urgency everywhere you go. It is a problem succinctly described by Mark Hastings, then the policy director at the Institute of Management, in an interview with Fortune: “People think they need to respond instantly, so they get involved in a kind of corporate tennis match,” he said.

Hastings’s advice for beleaguered emailers was to check their inboxes less, not more. He made that statement in 2000 — and was, unfortunately for us all, ignored.

Liked that? Try these!