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Flow Class: Is Checking Email Productive?

This short video is from a series about gaining control of your time, attention and energy in my online course, Science of Finding Flow. Read the rest here.

Do you check your phone first thing in the morning? If so, you aren’t alone.

One survey found that 80% of 18-44 year olds (and 89% of 18-24 year olds) check their phones within the first 15 minutes of waking up. And a quarter of those surveyed could not recall a time during the day that their device was not within reach or in the same room.

Another study found that people tend to check their email about every 15 minutes; another found that in 2007 the average knowledge worker opened their email 50 times a day, while using instant messaging 77 times a day—imagine what that might be today, nearly a decade later, given the evidence that we spend more time checking than ever before.

Clearly, we check our smartphones constantly. Is that bad?

A study of college students at Kent State University found that people who check their phones frequently tend to experience higher levels of distress during their leisure time (when they intend to relax).

Similarly, Elizabeth Dunn and Kostadin Kushlev regulated how frequently participants checked their email throughout the day. Those striving to check only three times a day were less tense and less stressed overall.

Moreover, checking constantly reduces our productivity. All that checking interrupts us from accomplishing our more important work; with each derailment, it takes us on average about a half hour to get back on track.

So why do we check constantly?

Why do we check first thing in the morning, if it just makes us tense and keeps us from getting our work done? Because it also feels, well…awesome. The Internet and electronic communications engage many of our senses—often simultaneously. All that checking excites our brain, providing the novelty and stimulation it adores. So even though disconnecting from the devices and communications that make us tense and decrease our productivity seems like a logical thing to do, your novelty-and-stimulation-seeking brain won’t want to do it. In fact, it will tell you that you are being more productive when you are online and connected to your messages than when you are disconnected and focusing on something important.

This point is worth lingering on: how productive we are does not correlate well with how productive we feel. Multitasking and checking a lot feels productive because our brains are so stimulated when we are doing it. But it isn’t actually productive; one Stanford study showed that while media multitaskers tended to perceive themselves to be performing better, they actually tended to perform worse on every measure the researchers studied.

Much of our checking and busyness, to paraphrase Shakespeare, is all sound and fury, no meaning or significance. You can sit all day in front of your computer checking and responding to email, but accomplish not one of your priorities. It may feel like a more valuable activity, because it feels more productive. But it is neither.

This post is taken from The Science of Finding Flow, an online course I created as a companion to my book The Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More by Doing Less.