How To Fix Email … With Science!

No one likes email. It’s a broken piece of the modern world that we’ve yet to ditch despite also now having to listen for the pings of Slack and Teams. But a pair of researchers have uncovered one simple technique for reducing inbox dread: return email to its asynchronous roots.

Most of us believe we need to respond to email immediately, and half of us respond within the hour. And that means too many of us answer messages during off-hours or when we’re mid-flow on actual work. That’s a problem, as we all get too many emails, spending more than a quarter of our work time on such messages.

After running a series of eight different studies, Laura M. Giurge, from the London Business School, and Vanessa Bohns, from Cornell University, may have the answer: stop treating email like Slack.

Email is a valuable tool because it’s flexible, allows broad collaboration even with people outside your company, and it’s asynchronous, meaning the receiver and sender don’t need to both be online or working at the same time. “We’ve turned the advantages into disadvantages,” says Giurge. “It’s something that should be used as an asynchronous means of communication, and somehow we started using it as an ‘all the time’ means of communication.”

Instant messaging tools, such as Slack, may require an immediate acknowledgement—even if it’s just a GIF or thumbs up emoji—as they’re generally used as ways to collaborate on work at the same time. But it’s time to reconsider email more like old-fashioned paper mail: Upon receiving your broadband bill from your ISP, you don’t, after all, write a letter to confirm receipt and signal your intent to pay; you just pay it when you have a moment.

This only works if we all agree, of course, and bosses have trained their staff to jump to attention when a new message lands in their inbox. “Email was supposed to make our lives easier by allowing us to work from anywhere, anytime,” says Bohns. “Instead, we wind up working everywhere, all the time … because of the pressure we feel to respond quickly when we hear that ding in our email.”

Anyone with an email account is both a sender and a receiver, so understanding the perspective of others should be easy, but we often forget. “In that moment of sending, we are just so focused on our own perspective that we fail to remember what it feels like from the receiver’s perspective,” Bohns says.

A sender may not even want a quick response—not least if it means they have work to do—but when that message lands in your inbox, it’s suddenly on your to-do list. “As a receiver, you’re just so concerned with other people’s expectations, of what they might think if you don’t get back to them right away—that you’re not dedicated or don’t care or not paying attention—that we’re really concerned with being responsive,” says Giurge.

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