Wherever I’ve worked, communication via telephone has always been the number one priority. Despite the fact that I might have been engaged in an important discussion, I’ve always answered the telephone. What is it about this device? Is it the insistent ring, or the curiosity it arouses around who might be calling? Telephones are incredibly intrusive devices. So much so that even if the recipient chooses to ignore it in favor of a conversation, the other person often asks, "Are you going to answer that?"
This is just one example of how technology controls an aspect of our lives, but it pales in significance when compared to e-mail. Now that our smartphones can receive e-mails, we are on alert 24/7. Does this have an effect on our lives? If we allow ourselves to be on call to respond to every e-mail, our stress levels will climb, and anything that increases unnecessary stress is bad.
A recent study from the University of British Columbia found that limiting the number of time we spend checking e-mail actually reduces stress levels. According to the findings, stress levels were reduced when the 124 participants were instructed to limit checking e-mail to just three times a day. Although some volunteers found it quite a challenge to resist checking e-mail, they all reported a reduction in psychological stress levels when they did.
There are other benefits, too. A University of California study found that removing constant e-mail checking reduced participants’ state of high alert as measured by heart-rate monitors. People on high alert release more of the stress hormone cortisol, which is associated with various health problems. Volunteers said they could focus better on the tasks at hand and agreed that many e-mails were just time wasting and distracting.
Why not give it a try? Start by switching off e-mail alerts. When you check them, don’t engage in "e-mail ping-pong," as this increases the time you spend engaged with e-mail. Try to contain the writing and answering of e-mails within the work day. Think through the best times of day for you on any given day of the week, and try to stick to these times. If someone snaps his or her fingers at you forty or more times a day, you would rightly feel resentful and you wouldn’t be responsive. Think of e-mail like finger snapping and ease back. After all, if you check e-mail three times a day, you’ll catch the important ones, and if something is urgent, people will use other means to get your attention.
There will always be e-mail, but if you prioritize it over the people physically in front of you, or other work and leisure activities, you will increase your stress and reduce your control.
Kushlev, K., Dunn, E.W. (2015) Checking email less frequently reduces stress. Computers in Human Behavior. 43.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.