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The E-Mail Challenge

I believe that being challenged is a great way to learn. Because of that belief, I continuously seek out challenges for myself and propose others to challenge my colleagues. There is one challenge that is rarely taken on in our corporate world, and by overcoming it can increase employee productivity significantly. It’s our insane addiciton to continuously check our e-mail.

The ridiculous time sink that is e-mail is unfortunately considered a sacred cow in corporations around the globe. Why is that? What do you possibly get from clicking on that seductive little mail envelope at the bottom right of your screen just to find out that a system that you never use will be taken down for the next 5 minutes while the server reboots?

The Habit Loop

Well, it’s a simple answer really. It’s a habit, and it’s a huge waste of productivity. Before we can break the habit, we need to understand the nature of it. In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes the components of what he calls the “Habit Loop”, and they can be used to identify the mechanisms that drive us to email obsession. The Habit Loop consists of three components: the “cue”, the “routine”, and the “reward”.

The Cue

This one is fairly easy, though it can be somewhat subtle. First, there’s that silly little envelope or the pop up window. It’s a cue. It’s triggering the execution of your habit, that is, screaming at you to check your inbox. You’ve heard that old trick of sutting off e-mail notifications and tried it because it just doesn’t work all that well right? That’s the subtlety of the e-mail habit cue. The notification isn’t really your cue at all, it’s your disengaged mind.

The Routine

The routine is truly easy, it’s that clicking on the envlope or firing up your favorite mail client (ok, it’s probably not your favorite, it’s your only mail client). Let’s face it, this is so automatic, you don’t even think about it. You probably can’t even remember how many times you did it yesterday.

The Reward

This is the reward that you receive for successfully completing your task. Hello Dopamine! So what is our reward for checking e-mail? Well we are, in fact, social animals. We, as well as many other species, haved used the concept of herds to stick around all these years. When we receive an e-mail, we are interacting with the rest of our herd. It’s evolution! While we sit in our cubes, largely disconnected from one another, we crave the interaction. Have you ever checked your e-mail only to see that the only e-mail you received was from the batch system reminding you that you’re approaching your anniversary date and you can select from an array of $2 rewards as a thank you? How excited do you get? What about the one from your boss or your colleague asking how you were coming on the project and if you need any help? If you’re like most people, one evokes a strong reward while the other does not.

What Now?

In order to change your habit, you have to change your Habit Loop. Consider this the challenge, change your habit loop, and end the stranglehold it has on your day. In another post, we’ll talk about how you can overcome your e-mail habit and replace it with more productive ones.