Review of “Checking email less frequently reduces stress” (Kushlev & Dunn, 2015)
Knowledge workers are now having to deal with unprecedented levels of information, on a number of different platforms and devices. We are constantly bombarded, and one of the most inescapable arenas of assault is our email inbox. Many people have difficulty managing their inboxes, organizing work and home emails, dealing with the daily influx, and adhering to the expectation that they respond to emails quickly. Managing your inbox requires that you attend to it, which means frequently switching between email and other tasks. Attention is a limited resource, and other research has shown that people whose cognitive resources are in excessive demand experience compromised well-being in other areas of their lives, like feelings of social connectedness and general life satisfaction.
A recent study, published in Computers in Human Behavior, looked at the effect that checking email has on one’s cognitive load and subsequent well-being. The authors, Kushlev and Dunn, use two experimental conditions, which they refer to as the limited email and unlimited email conditions, to successfully tie the number of times participants checked their email daily to how stressed those participants felt on a daily and weekly basis. They found that participants who tried to limit the number of times they checked their inbox to three times per day felt less daily stress (p =.04) than participants who made no effort to limit the number of times they checked their email in a day.
To see if these manipulations had any effect on well-being, the authors also looked at reports of subjective experience for each condition. They found that those who experienced more daily stress reported increased negative affect and lower positive affect. Stressed participants also reported poorer, or fewer, experiences well-being, like state mindfulness, nonhedonic well-being, environmental mastery, meaning in life, social connectedness, self-reported productivity, and sleep quality.
Kushlev and Dunn conclude that their findings provide causal evidence that checking email less frequently directly reduces stress and that this has highly plausible benefits for personal well-being. It’s important to note that although one group of participants was instructed to check their email three times per day, the study did not measure the daily stress of those who succeeded, but of those who tried. The number of times that the limited email group actually checked their email had a daily median of 4.70 and a standard deviation of 4.10. All the authors can really conclude, then, is that turning off email alerts and making the effort to check email less frequently reduces daily stress and that people who report lower daily stress also report feeling better about other measures of well-being than those who report higher levels of stress.
This suggests that mindfully limiting the number of times that you check your email could have real consequences for your stress levels and general well-being. Historically, this is the first time that knowledge workers have ever had to adapt to cognitive demands of this magnitude, and current human-computer interface design remains underequipped to facilitate what have become daily necessities. Behavioural strategies, like those outlined in Cognitive Productivity and above, become our most valuable tools for offsetting the negative consequences of a technology we rely on to fully experience and enjoy the modern world.
Kushlev, K., & Dunn, E. W. (2015). Checking email less frequently reduces stress. Computers in Human Behavior, 43(C), 220–228. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2014.11.005
 Interestingly, students, who made up two-thirds of the study’s voluntary sample, were significantly (p = .001) less distracted by email in the limited email condition than in the unlimited email condition, a finding that did not carry over to the study’s other participants.