“Your Brain on Email”: A Psychologist Reveals How Email Affects You

how email affects your brain

We’ve talked a little bit about the psychological impact of email here at Timyo before, but I wanted to recommend a great article at the Huffington Post by real psychologist Dr. Emma Seppälä, who is the Associate Director at the Stanford University Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (which has got to be one of the coolest job titles ever).

The whole article is well worth a read, but a few key takeaways:

1. Not just quantity, but variety counts. When it comes to stress, it isn’t just the quantity of stressors that reach us through our inbox, but the variety: our brains simply weren’t built to be barraged with the constant onslaught of different demands on our attention. From a note from Aunt Frances asking if you received her Christmas letter (since, you know, you didn’t respond) to your boss asking for an update on a project you didn’t even know you were supposed to be a part of, the rapid-fire and wide-range of stressors can leave us feeling overwhelmed.

2. Bad news matters more. Humans have a built in “negativity bias”, and for good reason: back on the savannas of 60,000 years ago, it was more important to pay attention to potentially dangerous things (that bloodthirsty howl coming from behind that rock over there) than to nice, pleasant things (the cool breeze blowing across your face) because the dangerous things could kill you. But today, that negativity bias means that even when our bad news is balanced out by good news in our inbox, we don’t give them the same amount of weight.

3. Making choices is exhausting, and leads to loss of self-control. Over the course of a busy day, our ability to make smart, rational decisions simply wears down. Email contributes to that fatigue by adding dozens of decisions to our day: what does this sender want from me? Should I respond Cc or Bcc? When do I need to reply to this? Where should I file this so I’ll remember to get back to it?…After a while, that fatigue can exhibit itself as impulsivity. Regret sending that snarky reply all to your coworkers (“Maybe if Greg thinks he can get the numbers done by Friday then Greg should be leading this effort, and also perhaps heading up our Unicorn and Fairies Division”)? Blame decision fatigue.

4. Multitasking kills productivity. If email isn’t integrated well into our workday, it can instead become one of the countless things that we are bouncing back and forth between throughout the day. And when we focus on everything, we aren’t really focusing on anything.

It’s obvious that misusing email is negatively impacting our psychological wellbeing and peace of mind, but fear not: there are also great ways to incorporate email into our work lives that make it once again a force for good, a useful tool to help us be more productive and less stressed out, rather than the other way around. Dr. Seppälä has a smart list of 30 tips to help “conquer your inbox” that is also definitely worth checking out.

But…if you are looking for just one tip that will make email better, not just for you but for everybody you interact with, I may be a little biased here, but I’m pretty sure I can recommend a great one. 🙂

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