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Has Our Use of Email Spun Out of Control?

4min read
Career

"It's the office memo turned cancerous, extended to home and everyday life." – Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things

Here's a story you might find familiar. I was recently asked to do some freelance work for a major company and, after several conference calls, their rep sent me a contract to look at. My colleague and I emailed it to another company I work with, accompanied by a note: "Look this over and see if it poses any conflict with the work I do for you." We assumed we could get the matter settled within the week, but we were very wrong.

Emails began to fly back and forth between a group of about eight people. Sometimes everyone was included on the chain, sometimes direct emails were sent to one person. In the end, 152 emails passed back and forth in 10 weeks time. And the entire matter was solved with a brief phone call. We finally set up a phone call between the two main parties and they resolved it in about a half hour.

This story is true. And it's not even unusual.

Most of us check our email 36 times an hour at work and our inbox takes about a quarter of our time. We check our email while we're on vacation; we check it while we're on a date; we check it in the middle of a movie that we've paid money to see. Almost 60% of us check it in the bathroom!

There's no doubt email makes business and personal life easier. Consider that the record for fastest time a piece of mail delivered by the Pony Express is held by the text of Lincoln's first inaugural address. It was left by coach and arrived in California only 7 days and 17 hours later. We can now send a link to a cat video and it will arrive in Malaysia in milliseconds.

We no longer have to buy 58 copies of a graduation photo to send to every family member. Now, we can just send it as an attachment. We can mail resumes to as many recruiters as we like at no cost. Email has made communication faster and cheaper and more permanent. It's much harder to make an email completely disappear than most might think.

But has our monster spun out of control? The ultimate purpose of productivity aids is to give us more time for relaxation and enjoyment, but we regularly allow email to intrude on off-time. Research shows people think they check their email about once an hour, but actually check it every five minutes when they're at home.

We now know that the convenience has a high cost. It's difficult to estimate the impact on our relationships, but it's actually quite easy to put a number to what we lose in the office and how it impacts our health. Social media distractions of all kinds cost about $650 billion every year. One doctor at Penn State College of Medicine decided to track his email for one academic year. Pediatrician Ian Paul kept careful notes of how much time he spent managing his inbox, and he concluded that unnecessary email cost the school about $1,641 per doctor per year. That amounts to more than a million dollars in very valuable (and highly educated) time.

By some measures, you lose 25 minutes every time you stop to respond to an email and there's no indication that answering quickly is worth it. Microsoft surveyed a group of employees back in 2007 and found that more than a quarter of them didn't get back on track for two hours after the inbox distraction.

84 percent of us have our email open on our computers at all times, even if it's in the background. When we see a notification that an email has come in, we check and we check it fast. Scientist say most emails are opened within six seconds after that notification pops up. But if we turn off those notifications and shut down the email program hovering in the background, our HRV (Heart Rate Variability) goes down, even if you're still getting phone calls and texts.

Here's the bald truth: most of us are worse people in email than we are in real life. Forget trying to negotiate anything. A study in 2008 showed people are less cooperative in email. Don't give an opinion about a friend or colleague through your inbox, either. Research shows we're more critical and negative while using digital communication. We're also 50 percent more likely to lie in email than in face-to-face conversation.

I'm sure we've all heard some version of Maslow's law: If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In many cases, no matter what the message we have to relay, everything looks like an email. But I'd like to crack open the toolbox and encourage you to try some other tools.

Some messages are best communicated through texting, some through email. But the one option most of us avoid is the most powerful option we have: the phone.

Humans communicate a great deal through the sound and tone of our voices. Surveys show we think that sarcasm translates in email about 80% of the time, but the reality is, it's successful just over half the time. In fact, our closest friends are no better at detecting sarcasm in our emails than a stranger off the street.

The voice is uniquely expressive and, therefore, powerful. As described in the 2005 movie, "The Interpreter," "The human voice is different from other sounds. It can be heard over noises that bury everything else. Even when is not shouting. Even if it's just a whisper. Even the lowest whisper can be heard – over armies – when it's telling the truth."

The human voice is as close to magic as biology can get. In a voice, you can hear not just emotion and meaning, but even history. You might hear the remnants of a childhood accent, or the echoes of a grandparent. You can hear genetic history as well, in the pitch and the timbre. You might hear the growl of college years spent smoking or the halting rhythm of an academic who's spent years in research.

Babies learn to mimic what they hear almost immediately and, as Dr. Frederic Turner says, "their family and native land are represented in their adult voice, together with their own genetic individuality and the habits acquired from their life histories. It is no wonder that we can instantly recognize a voice we know; the voice has all of our soul in it."

And yet, we seem to do whatever we can to neither use nor hear our voices. Modern communication often takes the mouth and the ears out of the process, relying instead on the blunt instruments that are fingers and thumbs.

A 2013 survey showed 43 percent of workers think email is the biggest source of confusion and resent in the office, and 64 percent said they have either sent or received an email that caused anger or resentment.

In fact, there's solid evidence that email, as a medium for communication, is only 7 percent as effective as talking to someone in person or over the phone.

And there's a further, more intangible benefit to talking: the possibility of creating bonds of sympathy. In 2011, scientists at Princeton University set out to learn how the human brain interacts with other human brains. They had one student tell a story about a debacle at her senior prom and then asked 12 other students to listen to a recording of the tale. As they listened, the students were hooked up to an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine.

What they discovered is that while a dozen people listened to the same story, their brains moved in similar patterns to that of the storyteller. The brain activity of all thirteen moved almost synchronously. That's called speaker-listener neural coupling or, more simply, "mind meld."

Is that what you're willing to sacrifice in order to fire off an email to a friend?

Email is an incredibly powerful tool, but it's not the most powerful communication tool that we have. Perhaps it's time to shake off the burden of our inboxes and learn to put the horse back in front of the cart. We can learn to limit our use of email and, at the same time, lower our stress levels, find more free time, and avoid miscommunication with friends and family.

We might even find that "mind meld" is as addictive as emails, and infinitely more rewarding. So, close your inbox and let's talk.

Our newsletter that womansplains the week
3min read
Self

It’s Time for Women to Stop Worrying About Being “Too Much”

We are living in a time when women are rising to new heights which means they are regularly being confronted with the fear of being "too much". For women in business this is pervasive and costly.

A few ways women can be perceived as "too much" are:

Speaking up about their successes and achievements.

Sharing one too many photos of their cute kids.

Telling one too many people about that date night.

Looking a little too good in that swimsuit.

These can lead to being publicly attacked on social media or privately slandered which in turn leads to women dimming their light and walking on egg shells in hopes of avoiding conflict and judgement.

The minute a woman feels it's unsafe to shine she will begin to overthink, worry, and fear how she shows up in the world.

Forgetting to announce the book is done and the interview is live.

Choosing to focus on what's still on the to-do list rather than what's been checked off.

Many female entrepreneurs are subconsciously altering their behavior in an attempt to not attract too much attention to themselves, rather than focusing on allowing authenticity and magnetism to attract their ideal clients and community.

Women are afraid of being criticized, ostracized, and abandoned by other women for simply being who they are. This leads to quite the quantum when being who you are is simplest way to accelerate the growth of your business.

New research shows men are far more comfortable with self promotion than women are. Researchers found that men rate their own performance 33 percent higher than equally performing women. What we know is that self promotion pays off and this is where women are missing the boat.

The world needs more women to step into leadership roles and no longer be intimidated about creating six and seven figure careers.

Here are five ways to release the fear of being "too much":

1. Approve of yourself.

While it feels good to receive outside validation it will never be enough if you don't first appreciate yourself. The key to having a healthy support system is to make sure you are part of it. Being your biggest critic is what your mother's generation did. It's now time to be your biggest cheerleader. Becoming aware of self talk will reveal what belief is ready to be re-wired. Create a simply mantra that affirms how incredible capable you are.

2. Connect deeply to those you serve.

One powerful way to shift out of people pleasing behavior is to get clear on who actually matters to the wellbeing and success of your life and business. Leadership is not about being the most popular, instead it's a decision to be brave for those who can't be. Take a few minutes each day to visualize and meditate on those your business serves and supports. See your future clients moving toward you every time you choose to stand in your power and use your authentic voice.

3. Remember the legacy you wish to leave.

Having your life purpose and legacy in writing is one of the most transformational exercises you can do. Reading this often will keep you focused on what matters. Knowing what you wish to leave in the hearts of those you love most is incredibly grounding. You didn't come here to keep your mouth shut, dilute your truth, or dim your light-you came here to make a difference.

4. Forgive those who have been unsupportive in the past.

The past has a way of informing the future in a negative way when there is unresolved pain. Take a few minutes to get quiet and ask yourself who you have unforgiveness towards or maybe their name came to mind as you read this article. Listening to a forgiveness meditation or writing a letter to the person you are ready to forgive are both simple and effective ways to process and heal.

5. Be part a community of bright, successful women.

Meaningful relationships with others who have similar aspirations is what will keep you out of isolation and playing small. These connections can happen in a networking group, online community or a local Meetup. Thriving in every area of life is depend on you knowing where you belong and being celebrated there. Don't wait to be invited, go actively seek out people and places that support your dreams and desires.

6. Accept you can have it all.


Women have been fed a lie for generations that says, you can have love or money. Decide you can have it all and allow it to flow to you. You can have a successful career and an amazing mother. You can balance motherhood and loving marriage. Don't let anyone write the rules for you. This is the time to create the life you desire on your terms.

7. Celebrate everything!

The fastest way to leave the haters in the dust is to celebrate everything! At the end of each day lay in bed and recall the best moments. At the end of each week, publicly acknowledge and celebrate what's good in your life. Once a month, have a celebration dinner and share it with those who have helped you in the journey. If there's something good happening, talk about it with everyone who will listen!

May you be a woman who chooses to shine so that others may be reminded of all they can be and do.