The Real Reason We Leave Email Notifications On Though We Know We Shouldn’t

March 3, 2019

As the research has accumulated on the serious consequences of workplace interruptions, email notifications have become an easy target for productivity coaches and those hoping to save time and experience less stress.

The costs are clear and easily calculated. The average professional wastes most of the 8 minutes per day spent reading notifications (6 seconds to read each of the 80 notifications most see each day). On top of those 8 minutes, notifications cause the average professional to spend 1.5 to 2 hours per day in a reduced state of cognitive performance. Research out of Loughborough University shows that, after an email notification interruption, it takes 64 seconds for you to return to work at the same rate you left it.

If the costs are so clear, then why do so many people continue to keep notifications on? A tweet in response to a recent article I wrote recommending people turn off their notifications is revealing:

Just the thought of turning off email notifications creates anxiety — anxiety that you will miss something important. Rather than debate the merits of this anxiety, consider four ways to reduce the anxiety stirred by the thought of turning off email notifications:

1. Check your email at consistent intervals.

Checking your email at consistent intervals achieves the same goal as reading email notifications, without the downsides. Regular email checks ensure that nothing sits in your inbox too long without being read.

How frequently should you check your email? Only 11 percent of customers/clients and 8 percent of coworkers expect a response in less than an hour, so an hourly check will enable you to meet the expectations of the vast majority of people. If waiting an hour feels unfathomable, start small at something like 20 minutes and work your way up to an hour as you get more comfortable with this approach.

Practically speaking, you need some way to know when your hour is up, so you don’t keep thinking about whether it is time to jump back into your inbox. The simplest approach is to download a free break reminder that will prompt you every hour, since putting 5-10 minutes in your calendar every hour would be tedious.

2. Silence notifications for an hour at a time.

Both Google and Apple have recognized the need to protect people from the endless onslaught of notifications on their phones. Over the last year, they have added a number of features that put you in greater control of whether and how you receive notifications. In keeping with the previous recommendation, you can easily set your phone to “Do Not Disturb” for one hour or another duration of your choosing (see how for iPhone or Android).

You can create a similar effect on your computer with applications like Cold Turkey, FocusMe, and Freedom. These apps will block websites, the whole Internet, and/or specific apps on all of your devices for any duration of time you desire. You can set up one of these apps to block out distractions for an hour. Take a break, and then put it back into action.

3.  Give VIPs a hotline. ​

Despite their prevalence, notifications are not the only way to stay on top of important matters. You can offer select people a hotline they can use in urgent situations that doesn’t go through email. For example, you can tell your team, important clients, and supervisors that if they really need you, they should call your work phone. When picking a hotline, choose a communication channel you are unlikely to silence except in rare circumstances and that few people have access to.

4. Create conditional notifications.

If you’ve read the last three recommendations and your anxiety levels are still abnormally high, then there is a final option for you: allow notifications for certain, priority emails. While there are different ways to make this work for each email application and platform, you can allow notifications for only emails that meet certain conditions, including sent from your supervisor, marked as high importance, and included your project name in the subject line.

The anxiety you may feel around turning off notifications is real, but it doesn’t have to stop you from making this life-improving change. Put these recommendations into action and find yourself calm and uninterrupted.




This article was originally published on Inc.com under this title: The Psychology Behind Why We Leave Email Notifications On and How to Overcome It.