Sydney Strategy Trials Switching Off to Switch On


Does limiting email access to three times a day boost happiness and productivity? Sydney Strategy put the theory to the test.

In 2012, 26-year-old Paul Miller decided to ‘quit the Internet’.

As a writer for the tech title The Verge, Paul lived on the Internet, and was bombarded by an uninterrupted flow of information coming out of it daily. Exhausted, Paul made a crazy move: unplug and live Internet-free for 365 days.

Whilst Paul’s measure seems extreme, he’s not the only one feeling overwhelmed. Take emails for example: the average office worker checks his/her inbox 74 times a day*- that’s over 9 times per hour.

No wonder we all feel like we are going insane.

Not only are we getting more anxious, we are becoming less creative and productive. Evidence shows that constant connectivity hinders creative thinking: when our brains are littered with random information, we have less room to come up with original ideas. Boredom, as it turns out, serves as a cleaner that declutters our brains and gives us back valuable ‘headspace’. Counterintuitively, our hyper-connectedness also hurts productivity- constant email pop-ups interrupt our thoughts and kill ‘chunky’ productivity times.

So far the picture looks a little grim. But fret not: science has come to the rescue. A recent study** reveals that limiting our email access to 3 times a day boosts happiness and productivity. Sounds good, but does it actually work? Our team decided to test it out, and we experienced a sense of discomfort that’s best described as ‘email withdrawal syndrome’: forgetting to shut down Outlook outside of email times; unable to resist the flashing ‘you’ve got mail’ icon and falling prey to the alarming thought that we were ‘missing out’. Even though we felt that our productivity rose on the (rare!) occasions that we stuck to this new regime, it didn’t cure us of our email addiction.

So it seems that this old habit is hard to kick. But why? It partly comes down to the fact that the harmful effects are not obvious until we burn out. In fact, an opposite force is at play- there is a hidden (but powerful) sense of satisfaction behind replying ‘just one more’ email. It only take 5 minutes right? Before we know it, one email rolls into ten- and hours have passed.

Then there’s the issue of inflated expectations. We are expected to respond in real-time, just because we can: crazy when you think about it. We don’t drive at the highest speed our cars are designed for, so why should we normalise this behaviour for our own communication? This unspoken rule makes individuals’ attempts to practice email curfew in isolation difficult: it breaks the chain and impacts others on the network. One solution is to adopt a systematic approach- the French initiative to ban work emails for all employees after 6pm is a great example.

Through our recent experience, we gained new-found respect for Paul Miller’s solo expedition in the Internet-free zone, so we checked in on him. It turns out that he has re-joined the human race in the cyber space. The lesson? Ultimately, the Internet is not the culprit behind his stress, but the mere accomplice to his negligence to self-regulate. You see, having constant connectivity is like eating at a buffet, we convince ourselves there’s never a good time to stop. The first step towards reclaiming our freedom from the digital tyrant is to scrutinise our behaviours and make conscious efforts to hit pause.

On our team, the pilgrimage to finding the perfect email practice goes on, and the following tricks seem to help.

1. Leave notes outlining the most important task for the day and do it before checking emails each morning;

2. Categorise emails to eliminate the non-essentials;

3. Only turn on emails during designated email times or mute the notifications to minimise disturbance.

We are proud to say that no emails were checked during the writing of this blog.

Now that’s a great start.


*Gloria J Mark, Stephen Voida, “A Pace Not Dictated By Electrons”: An Empirical Study of Work Without Email, Department of Informatics, University of California

**Kushlev, Kostadin; Dunn, Elizabeth, Checking email less frequently reduces stress, University of British Columbia research report

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