Why Do We Check Email So Much?


It’s 5:30 pm and Natalie has just finished her work. As usual, she did her work very diligently despite the fact that today, she seemed more anxious than usual. Instead of working on the latest project, she found herself mindlessly opening her email and then closing it. Earlier, when she was in the sales department, her life used to revolve around sending and receiving emails. But now things are different. She hardly gets any emails. Today, in fact, she only got two emails. To check those two emails, Natalie opened and closed her inbox 47 times in 8 hours thus reducing her actual work time to 3 hours.

We’ve all been there. Be it mindlessly opening and closing the refrigerator door or compulsively checking our Facebook feed, we all wish we could get rid of these little habits that end up taking up a lot of our time. Sometimes, we have so many of such “little distractions” built up that we don’t even notice when we’re doing them. Why do we do that? Are we that absent-minded that we don’t even catch them once?

Meet Discomfort.

Discomfort, either physical or emotional –usually the latter– is the root cause of most of our distraction issues. Whenever we feel a negative emotion or physical pain, our mind tries to distract us by telling us that we can do something to alleviate that discomfort. In fact, our mind or ego, is telling us that “look, you don’t have to feel this negative feeling, you can avoid it completely by doing something else.” Hence, paying heed to that advice, we start looking for that something else, that ever-elusive band-aid for our temporary discomfort. And, lazy and tired as we are, we try to find that cure in objects that are closest to us. For Natalie, opening her email was the easiest thing to do. For others, it might be turning on the television, opening the fridge, munching a cookie.

Any task becomes a distraction when we use it as a tool to run away from our discomfort.

If you have back pain after sitting for hours in front of the computer, you’re more likely to distract yourself with YouTube, Twitter, or Reddit. Similarly, when you’re working on a report on which your future depends on, you’re more likely to feel anxiety. That’s why, you find yourself working on high-pressure tasks longer than you estimated. You’re being so anxious that one part of you is pulling you towards the completion of the task while the other part is trying to distract you so as to alleviate that anxiety. Your brain hates discomfort. That’s why many times people who work 16 hours a day get less done than their colleagues who have worked 8 hours a day. The more uncomfortable you feel in your own skin, the more prone you are to immediate distractions.

Being busy doesn’t mean you’re productive. In fact, sometimes, being busy is worse than being lazy.

What to do?

Feel the discomfort: Say next time you catch yourself in the act of checking your email (or doing anything compulsive) try to stay still and close your eyes. Try to relax and be mindful of your inner world. There’s a big chance that you’ll either be angry, frustrated, or feeling anxious about some situation. Once you’re able to label that feeling, allow yourself to feel the negative emotion completely. Observe yourself and ask the question..how does this feeling feel in my body? What do I see? What do I hear? Just stay still, observe the feeling. Let it completely surround you. If it’s hard to put a finger on the feeling, stop everything and take a piece of paper. Set a timer for 15 minutes and allow yourself to write down anything that comes to your mind. DO NOT FILTER ANYTHING. Just write and write till the timer goes off. You’ll be surprised how light you’ll feel after doing this exercise.

Summon your inner Sherlock: A compulsive habit usually has a trigger behind it. For example, some writers, when they can’t think of the next word to write about, get out of their flow state and end up being distracted. Similarly, for every trip to your beloved inbox, there must have been a trigger behind it, like your mind saying “This is too hard!” or “This is too boring!” All you have to do is find that trigger and be mindful of it whenever it comes up next. If you get very good at this, there will come a point when you’ll be able to anticipate the trigger beforehand thus helping you avoid the compulsive activity. Remember that whenever you manage to find that trigger, do make sure you write it down.

Remind yourself gently: Once you’ve caught yourself in the act, there’s a huge amount of guilt that follows. And whenever you get back to work, you carry that guilt with you thereby negatively affecting your productivity. If you’re a compulsive email checker, stay in the inbox and start writing yourself a mail. Yep, do this. Write yourself a mail with the subject “Get back to work”. In the body of the message, write down all the guilty feelings you have at that moment. Confess to yourself all the guilty feelings that are there. For example, your message body may look like this: “I feel really guilty that I opened my inbox when there was no need. I really shouldn’t have done that. I know I should be getting back to work. Why do I keep doing this all the time? ” Next time you open your inbox, I guarantee, things will be a little different.


Before you start tackling your compulsive habit, make sure you sit and answer these five questions:

1. How many times a day do you usually check your email?

2. At what time do you check your email the most?

3. In general, what is your mood like when you check your email?

4. What is your energy level before  you check your email? i.e : Are you sad, anxious, nervous, happy?

5. What is your energy like after you check the email? Do you feel better or worse?

P.S : Replace email with any of your compulsive activity.

Write down the answers in the comments section if you feel comfortable. That way, we might be able to help you better point out your behavior pattern.

Also, feel free to ask any questions you have about your productivity in the comments section below.

Photo Credit: Biscarotte via Compfight cc

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