What’s Wrong With Email Part 4: False Sense of Urgency

Why is email such a headache? Email is consistently named one of the biggest distractions, an unproductive waste of time for knowledge workers, and a huge source of stress.

In this special series on email and productivity, I’ve highlighted several major problems with email that cause workers to hate it so much. I’ve already noted that the recipient bears the cost of an email, rather than the sender, and that we receive more email than we send. I’ve also noted how people check email but don’t process messages, which results in repeated work and therefore lost productive time, and every so often, a wee bit of banging one’s head against one’s desk.

Related to that last point of checking email way too frequently is the topic of this post: notifications and a sense of urgency.

Email Notifications are Killing Our Best Work

Knowledge workers spend about 30 percent of their day in email (Barely 2011, Macdonell 2015). But it’s not 30 percent in discrete chunks. Instead, people check email every few minutes, constantly, all day long. So it’s 30 percent built up from micro-moments.

Here are some statistics:

  • 70 percent of emails were reacted to within 6 seconds of their arrival in one study (Jackson 2001)
  • People take 25 minutes on average to return to their original task when they’re interrupted by checking email (Mark 2005)
  • When people were told not to task-switch while working, most people did it anyway, and it took them on average 16 seconds to do it (Gould 2013).

One reason people might check their email repeatedly throughout the day without processing it is because they have notifications enabled. Notifications are completely distracting. They encourage the “checking” behavior, which becomes a habit, and that’s no good.

Look again at that last bullet point: Even when people are trying to focus on only one task, they can’t help but interrupt themselves. Now imagine how much worse these self interruptions are when we have an new email message notification popping up in our face every few seconds or minutes.

Think about how email notifications work. By and large, we leave them set to notify us immediately when a new message arrives. There usually isn’t a smart feature that automatically figures out which emails are important and actually require a notification. That kind of feature is completely possible, but rarely done. The email assistant service SaneBox, for example, figures out which emails are important by looking at metadata on all your messages in your email. These metadata are things like the sender, the domain of the sender, whether you have traditionally replied to the sender, how quickly you replied to the sender, whether your address is in the To field or the BCC field, and so forth. In the iOS Mail app, there’s a VIP feature that lets you customize email notifications so that you only get pinged when the message is from someone important. And yet, most email programs don’t work this way (one exception is the Microsoft Outlook mobile app; see its Focused Inbox feature), or if they do, these smart sorting and notification features aren’t enable by default, or they’re not well known and require a level of customization that the average person isn’t likely to do.

Email isn’t very smart about how and when it notifies us of new activity. The message becomes EVERY EMAIL IS SUPER IMPORTANT!

When we constantly respond to every notification, we train ourselves to react as if every one is equally urgent.

Assumptions of Immediacy and a False Sense of Urgency

Email is a funny form of communication. When it started, it was, of course, “electronic mail.” It was a digital version of paper mail.

Paper mail is an asynchronous form of communication, meaning correspondents don’t communicate in real time. A sender sends a message and has no idea when the recipient receives it. The recipient gets the message, or so the sender hopes; there’s no way to know for sure unless the recipient replies. The recipient can reply any time or not at all.

The opposite is synchronous communication, such as phone calls, video calls, and face-to-face interactions. In synchronous communication, one person speaks and the other person responds right away. We know the other person received the message. The conversation takes place in real time, as it were.

Then we have modern email. It’s more like texting and instant messaging than paper mail. In some ways, texting, instant messaging, and email are synchronous forms of communication. In some apps, the sender can see when a message is delivered or opened. In some apps, the sender can tell whether the recipient person is online or idle. Confirmations of the recipient’s presence allows the sender to treat these forms of communication as if they were synchronous. So the line between synchronous and asynchronous communication for email is blurry. And because of that, many people treat email as if it were synchronous.

Nearly all participants in one study said that email “creates expectations that the receiver will respond quickly” (Mark 2012).  Especially in an office environment, where work is expected to happen at a rapid-fire pace, people believe that email is always urgent. When a sender sends email, the recipient generally assumes it’s because the sender need something–be it information, a task to be carried out, or other kind of response–now! Even if the message is nothing more than “Cake in the lobby at 4:00,” the sender is expected to come to the lobby promptly.

Sometimes, email is urgent. Sometimes, we are supposed to stop the task we are doing because the incoming information will change the task at hand. But in reality, it’s rare.

What would happen if you just stopped using email for a while? Many people fear that would drastically fall behind on work and essential information. Others worry they’ll miss a million-dollar opportunity. When put to the test, however, 13 office workers who voluntarily gave up email for a week found out that they were in fact much better off without email (Mark 2012).

The 13 people who gave up email for one work week were chemical engineer, materials scientist, psychologist, biologist, food technologist, and research administrator. Four of them were supervisors. Did they get side-swiped by urgent issues coming via email that they didn’t see? Nope. Without email, they spent longer amounts of time on their core tasks that required focus and periods of uninterrupted work. They switched between applications less frequently. When something important needed to be communicated, they walked to find their colleagues and speak in person, or they picked up the phone. Whenever a companywide message was sent, another employee would speak up and brief the no-email group on what was happening. On the whole, they were less stressed, too, measured by heart rate variability.

Most important of all, the people who gave up office email for a week mostly reported that the experience was positive and that catching up after the study wasn’t nearly as bad as they imagined.

Should You Give Up Email?

I would never tell anyone to quit email outright, as it is a useful tool when used for the right reasons. There are a few things anyone can do to improve the experience of using email:

  • Shut down email when you’re trying to do your most important work. Don’t leave it running in the background. Pick a time when you will resume using email, either a specific time or when the task is complete.
  • Don’t use email when it’s not necessary. In this sense, anyone can become an email role model. Help your colleagues understand when you prefer face-to-face or phone communication, for example, for absolutely urgent issues. You can always ask someone to send an email as a follow-up if you need the message in writing.
  • Compartmentalize office email for external communication only. A lot of the non-urgent messages that don’t need to be email come from internal office communication. These messages include task assignments, general office information, and opt-in information (e.g., not everyone cares that there’s a happy hour next Thursday). Shifting these non-email messages into other communication tools that are better for handling them helps minimize unimportant email tremendously.


Gould, S. J. J., Cox, A. L., & Brumby, D. P. (2013). Frequency and duration of self-initiated task-switching in an online investigation of interrupted performance. In Human computation and crowdsourcing: Works in progress and demonstration abstracts AAAI technical report CR-13-01 (pp. 22–23).

Jackson, T., Dawson, R., Wilson, D. (2001). The cost of email interruption. Journal of Systems and Information Technology, 5(1), 81-92.

Macdonell, R. (2015). Private communication.

Mark, G., Voida, S., and Cardello, A. (2012). A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons: An Empirical Study of Work Without Email. Proc. of CHI’12, 555-564. Retrieved from https://www.ics.uci.edu/~gmark/Home_page/Research_files/CHI%202012.pdf Dec. 22, 2015. doi 10.1145/2207676.2207754

Image by Joe Flood, CC.


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