How To Break Free From Email Addiction

Unlike social media, email is especially seductive as its content is specific to you. Author Cal Newport offers tips for breaking free from this constant distraction. 


In Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, computer science professor Cal Newport admits to his aversion to social media. No Facebook, no Twitter, no way of reaching out or checking in, save the Washington Post that arrives at his doorstep every morning. What he’s sacrificed in distraction technologies he’s gained in dedicated work time, as well as dedicated free time, something he says also needs to be scheduled in.

Newport’s contention is not necessarily the mediums, but how they are used—predominantly for entertainment. We’re familiar with the dopamine hit our brain registers every time a new message appears. The exploitation of our brain’s novelty bias keeps us constantly disengaged from whatever is in front of us. Numerous neuroscientists and psychologists have pointed this out before; their warnings seem to have done little to dissuade addicts from getting their fix. 

Newport takes a different approach in Deep Work by creating a program—really, a number of programs, as he recognizes we all have different capabilities for focus—to implement if you’re feeling dissatisfied with your ability to pay attention. Most interesting is his separation of email from the rest of the pack, something I had not considered as all such browsers are essentially labeled “other” while I’m writing. 

Newport argues that email is different from other forms of social media and online engagement:

This quintessential activity is particularly insidious in its grip on most knowledge workers’ attention, as it delivers a steady stream of distractions addressed specifically to you.

Those last four words gave me a quick dopamine rush when I read them. My “other” categories are Facebook, Twitter, and email, along with lesser used mediums, iMessages, Slack, and Instagram. Five are used professionally while text is mostly to stay in touch with my wife and friends. While texts are obviously addressed to me and not the world broadly, I had simply lumped email into the other forms of connecting. Watching people walk around streets answering emails was essentially the same as surfing Facebook. 

Newport’s argument makes sense. Since email is specific to you, it has a particularly strong hold on attentional resources, which are already limited. Keeping your email program open while working invites all sorts of distractions, making it harder to get back to the task at hand. As Newport notes it takes your brain roughly twenty minutes to overcome the “attention residue” left behind from even seemingly innocuous transmissions that do not warrant much attention at all. 

All this makes it hard to get into deep work, Newport’s term for the ability to give your total attention to your work. To help cultivate this state he offers the following tips for breaking the chemical hold email has over cognitive resources. Like scheduling time to not work, scheduling email time (like social media time) proves to be more beneficial cognitively and emotionally than remaining on constant alert. 

Make People Who Send You E-mail Do More Work. 

On his website Newport places a disclaimer, which he calls a sender filter, warning you that he probably won’t respond unless it’s something that makes his life more interesting. That way people’s expectations are lessened. This resetting of expectations is both psychologically freeing for the receiver and sender—no hurt feelings. When he does reply your surprise is even more valuable than if you simply expected a response. Any filler content that brings no value to his life is not worth a reply. 

Do More Work When You Send or Reply to E-mails.

If someone sends a vague question Newport does not respond. His general rule is if it takes him longer to reply than it took the sender to send it’s not worth his time. Specific questions are a different story. Consider the difference between asking, “How are you?” (which might as well be like saying, “I don’t want to think about what to say so I’m passing it over to you”) and asking, “Is everything okay with your mother?” The latter has a point; the former is vague and noncommittal. In Newport’s eyes this sort of time suck is not worth being distracted.

On the flip side, if he has to send an email, he tries to be as specific as possible to not waste the receiver’s time. Writing in a process—the difference between “want to meet up?” and “want to meet at the coffee shop at 3 pm on Wednesday?”—is an essential way of moving the ball along, rather than hoping the other person assumes responsibility. 

Don’t Respond.

This is a tough one during a time when everyone expects a response. I’ve adopted this philosophy out of sheer habit. When I was a full-time music journalist I received hundreds of emails evert week to cover records and shows and interview artists. Answering email should not be a full-time job. Most publicists are used to not hearing from you if you’re not interested, but this is a unique situation. 

As a health and fitness writer I now receive health questions, some of them quite detailed. I used to reply that I’m not a doctor and to see a professional, but I’ve found even that to be a distraction. It’s a difficult balance, but recognizing boundaries is important during a time when so many boundaries feel dissolved even though they are not. 

Reading Newport’s excellent short book was a great reminder for a process that I began initiating last year: keep email closed except for dedicate email times. Setting aside deep work hours and sticking to them is a discipline, one that becomes easier over time. This is an especially important practice to implement during a time when media corporations are specifically tailoring content and advertising to you, as email already is. 

Fending off the emotional response to such stimulation—“oh, look, Facebook cares about me”—is going to become more challenging as the algorithms improve. Taking a proactive stance in cultivating attention is a necessary component of every occupation. The costs of not doing so are not worth the cheap rewards: fleeting entertainment that result in an inability to keep your mind on the target. 

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Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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