Email Overload

I recently finished reading Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. It took forever to read because it was so long and touched on so many different (and interesting) topics related to the way humans think and how our minds do (and don’t) work. Even so, I highly recommend it if you like random facts.

The number one piece of information that I gleaned from the book (and which I will likely remember for the rest of my life) is that supposedly when you see an email pop up at the corner of your screen and you’re in the middle of doing something else, your IQ decreases by 10 points when you glance at the email out of the corner of your eye. Your attention has effectively been grabbed by the annoying popup, even though you may not be 100% focused on it, and it’s going to take a relatively long time to regain your flow and get back into what you were doing before the email hit.

At the beginning of this year, I made a resolution to cut down on the amount of email I would get in my personal inboxes. That meant unsubscribing from what seemed like a million different listservs, and some of them won’t actually unsubscribe you the first time, so you have to keep unsubscribing until it finally sinks in on their end. So now I get about five emails a day in each inbox, which is far more manageable.

Unfortunately, at work, there is no similar way to cut down on email and distractions because 99% of the emails are from clients and contain useful/necessary information. So what I have learned to do is to turn off Outlook when I am in the middle of something important so that I can concentrate and not be distracted. This has worked quite well so far, but the only catch is that when I turn Outlook back on, I have to spend time going through the seemingly thousands of messages that accumulated in my absence.

So I suppose that email is just one of those necessary evils of life that you just have to deal with and try not to get overwhelmed by. There is even an Email Charter with guidelines on how to respect people’s inboxes and not get overburdened by the deluge.

How do you cut down on the email overload?

6 thoughts on “Email Overload

  1. Interesting points. I am old enough to remember the days before email existed, when instead we had to look at memos on paper in a real mailbox on the outside of our office doors! Since it took time to write and type these up they only came when necessary policies we had discussed then had to be made a permanent part of the company record. These paper memos still exist, of course, but now we have another job – and it has become that – to read all the “messages” in our email box. I have several email addresses, so I try to keep work emails in one and personal in another. Also, I never have emails pop up while I am working, for the good reasons mentioned. I make time to check periodically through the day.


    1. That’s right. Now that there’s email, everyone feels the need to send a message about every little thing because it’s so easy. Phone calls and actual paper messages have been almost totally forgotten.


  2. I have a big advantage at work, which is that most of my actual work happens on paper, so I don’t see the email notifications until I want to take a break and turn my head.

    Needless to say, I don’t have any sort of beep or anything like that.

    My phone only checks my personal email occasionally (which helps battery life, too).

    I believe in the IQ drop, plus the time spent sitting around muttering, “Now, what was I doing…”


    1. Oh, that’s nice. Probably 98% of my work occurs via email/the screen, but I like to print out hard copies and work on those just to get a break from it.


  3. I’ve always had this nagging suspicion about the effectiveness of popups. I love them, they are addictive, yet they are so annoying when I’m trying to do something (ie write or read on the screen). What you do is basically all you can do: just turn it off. I started using and let me tell you, it’s great. I put half of my subscriptions in there and most of the time, I can skim through tens of emails without opening them and just hit delete.

    I also have a two emails, one for subscriptions and one for clients/work/professional/important. That also helps to sift through much of the junk!


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