This is in response to a post by Dr. Dan Ariely:
I’ve always bemoaned email as a form of communication. As you pointed out, most of it is junk. There are a few important emails sprinkled in there, but most of it is just a waste of time. If only there was a way to quickly dispatch the unimportant ones, instead of having to wade through them slowly! Even if we can’t solve the problem of unimportant emails sucking up our valuable time, we can take measures that reduce the amount of attention switching it causes through compulsive email checking.
I tried to become very disciplined about checking email only once a day. This usually works pretty well for my personal inbox, because most people including myself don’t expect a response faster than 24 hours. When I worked for a large company, they had a policy that explicitly stated that emails should generally receive a response within 24 hours. Even though many people were anxious to get a response sooner than this, I think checking email once a day ended up working well for me, because people were generally familiar with the policy.
Later, I moved to a small company, where I quickly realized that my 24 hour email checking regimen was not well appreciated. I’m not saying this is characteristic of small companies (37signals seems to be much more enlightened in this area), but I was basically expected to monitor my inbox, because that’s what everyone else there does and expects of others. I tried to explain my rationale, which basically argued that I was more productive with less frequent distractions. Unfortunately, my boss was not convinced, and insisted that I check more often. Since he wanted me to check more often, I thought it’d be reasonable to ask how often he wanted me to check my inbox. What he recommended was that I check as often as necessary. Since everyone expected an almost immediate response, I concluded that this amounted to checking constantly.
One of the things that I learned from this is that even if you are determined to break your own bad habits, the social environment might dictate otherwise. This can happen because of implicit expected response times, which can be strongly self-reinforcing. If you’re the lone hold-out, there’s very little chance that you’ll be able to maintain your “infrequent” email checking habit, because people will actually get angry that you didn’t get their emails that they sent an hour ago; or you’ll might miss meetings, because the organizer doesn’t send a notification a day or more earlier
Other than the network effect, one reason that it’s so difficult to convince people that checking less often is better is that people think they are great multitaskers, and believe they have no problem switching between email and real work. This is the same reason that people listen to music while they work or study. The effect of distractions and importance of concentration on work is pretty much a settled question in science and has been for some time. Despite our denial to such facts, which seems to be correlated with the increased of use of technologies such as email, there’s little doubt in the psychology community that more distractions -> lower performance.
I actually used these findings as the basis of my once per diem email checking custom. Under normal circumstances, I believe it works pretty well. Unfortunately, people are not that interested in science when it contradicts what they want to believe, as in the case of rationality and the fallacy that it is the law that governs our behavior.