Ease Off Email, You'll Live Longer

Higher heart rates, shorter attention spans and more stress are just some of the downsides of email addiction. A new study shows that unplugging now and then may save your life.

When I switched ISPs last month, I added an inbox to house email sent to my new address. Less than a month later, I have 841 unsorted emails in it, including 139 I haven’t read yet. And that, of course, doesn’t include the 995 unread emails in my older inbox. Hmmm. Could this be affecting my stress level?

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If you answered yes, you’re on the same page as a group of researchers at the University of California, Irvine, who found that being cut off from work email significantly reduces stress and increases productivity by allowing employees to focus far better.

The researchers cut off email to 13 office workers for five days. Heart rate monitors were attached to them, while software sensors detected how often they switched windows. People with email switched windows an average of 37 times per hour and had a consistently high heart rate. Those without email changed screens half as often -- about 18 times in an hour -- and had a more variable heart rate, which is considered healthier.

Interestingly, the paper cites earlier research showing that that 70 percent of emails sent to information workers were attended to within six seconds of arriving. Think about that. No wonder the researchers at Irvine found that when deprived of email, workers were better able to focus on the task at hand. Frankly, I've looked at half a dozen emails while writing this post. Wouldn't I be done already if I hadn’t kept switching from window to window? And maybe I'd be doing a better job.

At the end of each day, the 13 test subjects filled out questionnaires. Here are some of the things they said:

  • My work has become how to manage email.
  • I have so many emails, I don’t even read them.
  • With email, it's a train wreck … you can't look away from it.
  • I let the sound of the bell and the pop-ups rule my life.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

"Email vacations on the job may be a good idea," said UCI informatics professor Gloria Mark, who co-authored the study "A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons." Another idea, she suggested, was for companies to do things like limit log-in times, or maybe send email in batches so people wouldn’t feel pressured to check it every few minutes.

Mark said it was hard to recruit volunteers for the study, but "participants loved being without email, especially if their manager said it was OK. In general, they were much happier to interact in person." However, the test subjects did say they felt somewhat isolated when they were placed out of the email loop.

The study was funded by the Army and the National Science Foundation. Why should the Army care about this? The Army is examining use of smartphones and such applications as email for soldiers on battlefields, said a spokesman for the service. "This data may very well prove helpful," he said.

On the other hand, you'd think our soldiers have enough stress to deal with already. Would adding smartphones and email really be such a good idea?

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