Does your heart sink every time you get an email notification? Are you full of dread every time you open up your inbox? When someone asks you what you’re doing, is “answering emails” a regular reply out of your mouth?
You aren’t alone. Since its creation, email has grown from a novelty into a crucial business mainstay, and beyond. Unfortunately, it has seemingly metastasized into its own entity—an attention-seeking monstrosity, endlessly starved for more of our focus—a reflection of what Cal Newport calls our hyperactive hive mind.
As defined in Newport’s book, A World Without Email, the hyperactive hive mind is “a workflow centered around ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools like email and instant messenger services.” Or, to put it another way, the increasing use of digital communication channels is creating chaos in our workflows by way of constant interruptions.
Email is literally a system of unstructured, unscheduled messages. You don't choose when to receive them. They occur sporadically throughout the day, with no formal structure to the content. Any given message might range from a half-baked message about insignificant minutiae, to a full-blown essay complete with citations and links. At any time, you may receive a long, detailed message from management that takes you out of your current workflow, then spend minutes reading and digesting it, only to find that it isn’t even pertinent to you. It’s a waste of time, it’s frustrating, and it’s almost completely avoidable.
Why Are We Like This?
If this hits close to home for you, it’s because like many of us, you’ve found yourself caught up in the e-maelstrom. Broadly speaking, there are two intractable elements at odds with us in our battle against chaotic, asynchronous communication: The first is our paleolithic brain, and its inability to keep pace with Moore’s law, which is the assertion that computers double their speed and power every two years. The second has to do with how easy it is to send messages to anyone quickly, impulsively, and impersonally.
To the first point: our human brains are ancient. Yes, they are extremely adaptable, but the way our minds actually process information has been roughly the same for over 100,000 years. Meanwhile, our technological advancements have accelerated at a comparatively breakneck pace that far outstrips our brains’ rate of evolution.
To illustrate the contrast of the modern hyperactive hivemind with our ancient minds, Newport compares our current relationship to communications via a tribe of people in the African Congo, who practice a more traditional way of life. The Mbendjele BaYaka live in groups of anywhere between 10 and 60 people, and like many groups that live life the old way, they’re highly cooperative with each other. Sharing food in particular is a critical component of their survival and honey sticks are a particularly valuable food item. Scientists studying them found they could reliably and accurately predict which families would have more living offspring by the volume of honey sticks which were shared with them—an indicator of their social standing within the tribe. The number one indicator of honey stick acquisition? Frequency and quality of one-on-one conversations.
Through the lens of this ancient way of life, we can see the intrinsic value and importance of communication to our success as humans. As Newport says, ”...We are all hardwired to treat socializing with great psychological urgency—if you neglect interactions with those around you, they’ll give their metaphorical honey sticks to someone else.”
To back this up further, Matthew Lieberman’s neuroscience-oriented book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect asserts that “the social networks in our brains are connected to our pain systems, creating the intense heartbreak we feel when someone close to us dies… or when isolated from human interaction.”
It is in this context that we can clearly see the problem with runaway reliance on email for work communications. We instinctively understand our interpersonal interactions to be critical to our success as humans, but where we would otherwise filter pertinent questions and responses in the course of synchronous communications (face-to-face, meetings, phone calls), we have access to a wider audience with a lower bar for information quality in our emails, chat messages, and texts.
The New-Old Way
Given that our brains are designed to instinctively treat almost every interaction with colleagues as critically important—receiving so many messages from members of our circle has deleterious effects on our mental and physical health. This isn’t just conjecture—there are no shortage of scientifically rigorous studies backing this assertion:
- “The longer one spends on email in [a given] hour, the higher one’s stress is for that hour.” (Mark, 2016)
- “High information and communication technology demands are associated with suboptimal health outcomes” (Stadin, 2019)
- Before [predictable time off from work], only 27%of consultants reported being excited to start work in the morning. After reducing communication, this number jumped to over 50%, and job satisfaction numbers jumped from under 50% to over 70%. (Perlow, 2012)
Obviously, there’s a huge advantage to using digital communication tools for work. No one is going to argue that it’s bad for people to have access to helpful communication tools. The issue with it is the same as the issue with any form of excess: Without controls on our usage though, we aren’t able to use these tools strategically.
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Easy Isn’t Always Good
When you combine the impersonal ease of sending emails and chat messages with the unfortunate game of conversation hot potato, our ancient brains go haywire. We’re reacting to every message notification—no matter how trivial—as if it were a crucial bit of communication which requires an immediate response. Additionally, faceless, decontextualized communications cause us to miss out on crucial physical and verbal cues such as body language, intonation, cadence, and eye contact.
Conversations which once had happened in person or on phone calls have been shifted onto the email platform, but while the medium changed, the content of the messages have not. By shifting interactions that previously contained much of the substantive non-verbal communications inherent in IRL interactions, we are denying ourselves the opportunity to use our finely calibrated social circuits which make our species so good at working together.
Put simply, without the crucial non-textual communications that exist in face-to-face meetings and even phone calls, we’ve defaulted to mediums that make it harder for us to understand and effectively communicate with one another.
This has resulted in a self-perpetuating crisis cycle that wears us down, creates unnecessary stress, and frustrates our efforts to get work done. After all, talking about work is not actually work. In his research at MIT, Alex Pentland comes to the conclusion that “memos and emails simply don’t work the same way that face-to-face communications work...It’s no wonder that our inboxes so often leave us with an unspecified and gnawing sense of annoyance.”
Consider This Scenario:
A content writer is about to publish an article on behalf of their company. They’ve finished writing the article around 8PM but they’re not sure which hashtags to apply, so they send a quick email to their boss asking about it, and maybe even CC the rest of the comms team.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
The comms director is eating dinner, but hears the email notification go off. They try to ignore it, but it’s in the back of their mind the rest of the meal with their family. After dinner (and outside of business hours), they write back about it. Upon hearing a second email notification, the marketing manager decides to see what the conversation is about, so then they chime in with some alternative point of view, which the comms director disagrees with.
All of a sudden, everyone on the team is trying to satisfy their ancient need to quiet the anxiety of helping their tribe with a relatively trivial problem. After all, it’s nothing that couldn’t wait until tomorrow. But because it was so easy to contact their team, everyone is likewise easily drawn into unnecessary work.
This can and does happen over and over and over and over, forming the core of our hyperactive hive mind.
Exploring the Alternatives
Email isn’t going away anytime soon, nor should it. But its usage has become so haphazard and careless that it’s causing us strife and struggle. Implementing better policies and habits surrounding its use, and codifying healthier boundaries around work will go a long way to improving mental health, productivity, and employee retention rates.
Embracing other tools can also help you keep conversations where you want them. Integrated chat is increasingly appealing as a replacement for most interactions that would otherwise take place in an email, but with more versatility as a targeted, searchable messaging system and archive.
If you’re interested in learning more about the alternatives to email, check out our free ebook, Don’t Send That Email. We go into detail about what you can do to minimize the amount of time answering emails, and how to keep conversations on track.
About the Author
Mark is an avid writer with a ton of experience in journalism, experience design, performance, and event production. He also has impeccable taste in music. He currently lives and works as a writer/editor in the SF Bay Area. When he's not working, he's probably either spinning records or scoring goals on a bike polo court near you.