My addiction snuck up on me. At first I was sucked in by the novelty factor; it was new, exciting, revolutionary, and my productivity at work soared. Only it couldn’t last.  Before long my new habit began to take over my life. I found myself sneaking off during family time to get the next fix, waking in the night because I simply couldn’t wait until morning.

And the truly scary thing? It’s becoming an epidemic. In fact, according to studies, there are a growing number of professionals just like me, convinced that we’ve got everything under control yet increasingly falling prey to the lure of the inbox.

“You’ve Got Mail.”

Those of us over a certain age will remember how sweetly our love affair with email began. The joy of instant communication with colleagues on the other side of the world. The novelty of being able to share news with distant relatives without having to wait days (or even weeks!) for a snail mail response.

The 1998 movie, You’ve Got Mail, with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan sums up the early days of email so perfectly and I too remember waiting impatiently for my modem to start up, filled with anticipation, desperately hoping to hear the words: “You’ve got mail”.

How things have changed! Forget that thrill of anticipation — today when I open my email the overwhelming feelings are those of dread, anxiety, and yes, even defeat. How has my email use morphed from a bringer of freedom, an opener of worlds, into an albatross around my neck?

And how the heck is it possible that I have so many unopened emails?

At one particularly low point in my career, overwhelmed and stressed as I was, I found myself getting up in the middle of the night to check my email. Even if I made sure to read every single email before going to bed, I felt compelled to check my inbox in the early hours of the morning. I’d find myself responding to emails while driving (do NOT do this at home, folks!), while I was supposed to be spending quality time with my family, even while I was on vacation. I simply couldn’t keep up with the volume and I thought that my incessant checking was the sign of a good leader, the hallmark of someone with a strong work ethic.

Oh boy was I wrong!

I realized I was reacting to bite-sized pieces of each email because I didn’t have the time to read the entire thing. I began to miss out on valuable opportunities for face-to-face communication because it was easier to fire off an email than to walk down the hallway and into someone else’s office. I found that my keyboard provided me with a sort of false courage that actually ended up being a major barrier to effective communication.

Feel like you’re spending half your life on email? You probably are…

I know I’m not the only one to have fallen prey to this sort of email addiction. According to one study, the average worker spends 11 hours each week on emailing — that’s a terrifying 28% of the working week. In the time we spend on email, we could hike the Inca Trail 23 times, read the entire Harry Potter book series 18 times over, or take 30 road trips around the US.

And it isn’t just the time we spend reading emails and drafting (and redrafting!) a response that takes up so much of our work day. Crucially, it’s the 23 minutes the average person needs to get back on track after an email interruption that really eats into our productivity. By the time you take that into account, emailing can account for as much as 52% of your time at work each year. 

Forget road trips, just think of the career progress you could make if you freed up some of that lost time, the face-to-face connections you could nourish, the communication skills you could hone…

Breaking the habit.

I’d like to say that I’ve cracked the problem but I’m far from perfect. I consider myself a recovering mega-email user. Of course, going cold turkey is impossible. And I don’t for a second mean to vilify all email use — I have no desire to return to snail mail or time-consuming video calls every time I have a question for distant colleagues. And I’ll bet that you don’t either!

So how do we find a happy balance?

I think the way to regain control over our work day, our communication, and our overflowing inboxes is to consider our email use more carefully. It’s about asking ourselves whether we’re using email because of habit, because it’s the easy option, or because it’s actually the best option for this particular situation.

For me, it’s about learning to wait a couple of days before I respond to emails that elicit an emotional reaction instead of sending off a knee jerk response that I later desperately wish I could claw back from the ether. It’s about learning to pick up the phone to have a quick, efficient conversation rather than starting a long, tedious, never-ending email thread. It’s about learning to ask for the opportunity to meet with someone when they have time to talk. It’s about claiming back the extra layers of communication we miss out on when we converse through email alone. 

And it’s definitely about setting (and sticking to) healthy boundaries. There’s a time and a place for emailing and the middle of the night isn’t it!

While I know my days of “You’ve Got Mail” level excitement are over, I’m hoping that I’ll eventually get to a place where I actually once again look forward to opening my email inbox. And who knows what I’ll do with all of the extra time I’ll be saving in the meantime? The Inca Trail awaits…

What about you? What could you achieve if you weren’t spending 11 hours each week on email? What would you do with an extra 11 hours a week? I’d love to know!

And if you’d like some help brushing up your non-email communication skills, get in touch. I’d love to help!