Email is evil* (because the cognitive tax it imposes is currently too high)

fern
fern (Photo credit: muhawi001)

Email has become dysfunctional as a communication tool. Another morning, and another 50 overnight emails, with another 100 or so to arrive during the day. And there’s nothing special about me in this regard. Email harvesting and sales of email distribution lists is big business these days. You hire a car, or search for a hire car, and lo and behold, a daily email from every hire car company. Search for tickets for an event, and emails every day from every which way you look. Search and buy supplies and consumables for your lab, and you are damned by intermediators sending you emails on junk you don’t use every day (no, I’m not a structural engineer. I don’t need a strain gauge for torsional load measurements on bridges, thanks.) And then the daily onslaught of eToCs, spamferencers, notifications that your papers have been cited, updates from databases, or social and professional networks, workshop notifications, newsletters, reminders, special offers on hotels and double glazing … and it continues ad nauseum.

And there needs to be a special place in hell for whoever invented the reply-all button. There is precisely no need to signal to the rest of the world that you have read and agree with the general proposal that we will all be nice and spread pixie dust as we go about our daily business. And why not use Doodle to schedule meetings, instead of endless round-robin emails?

When Gmail introduced inbox sorting and categorisation, it felt for a while like the inbox was under control – but there was still the daily (hourly) search and delete operation. Unsubscribing doesn’t work; it just confirms that this is a live email account. And despite labelling lots of things as spam, you still get bombarded with stuff.

There is a serious point here. There is a considerable organisational overhead generated by excess emails: one study suggests workers in organisation spend about 20%-30% of their time answering and reading emails. It also says workers spend 650 hours a year on email. This is too much; way too much.

There is a further but not entirely obvious problem: repetitive but non-predicatable switching between tasks imposes a substantial cognitive tax. Email is a profoundly stimulus-driven behaviour, and one which is driven by stimuli that are largely unpredictable. You know you are going to receive emails: you just don’t know when. And when you do, you must respond. Do you delete? Do you reply? How long will it take to read? Can I be bothered? There is a large and reliable literature in experimental psychology which shows that

human “executive control” processes have two distinct, complementary stages… “goal shifting” (“I want to do this now instead of that”) and the other stage “rule activation” (“I’m turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this”).

The constant switching between tasks is exhausting and depleting of cognitive processing. And this is also costly for productivity:

  • It takes more time to get tasks completed if you switch between them than if you do them one at a time.
  • You make more errors when you switch than if you do one task at a time.
  • If the tasks are complex then these time and error penalties increase.
  • Each task switch might waste only 1/10th of a second, but if you do a lot of switching in a day it can add up to a loss of 40% of your productivity.
  • Task switching involves several parts of your brain: Brain scans during task switching show activity in four major areas: the pre-frontal cortex is involved in shifting and focusing your attention, and selecting which task to do when. The posterior parietal lobe activates rules for each task you switch to, the anterior cingulate gyrus monitors errors, and the pre-motor cortex is preparing for you to move in some way.
gyri - anatomical subregions of cerebral cortex.
gyri – anatomical subregions of cerebral cortex. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here are some nice experiments showing that there are carry-over effects when you switch between tasks. And decision making is depleting (i.e. it tires you out because it is a finite resource. And don’t appear before a judge just before they have lunch and rest breaks. The outcome won’t be good. Decision making becomes more conservative under resource-depletion.)

Finding the signal in the email noise is a challenge. But – there is a solution. I’ve started using unroll.me, and the results are stunning. It unsubscribes for you, and allows you to roll-up all the circular emails you might need to occasionally inspect in a neat little window. No more being overwhelmed, and no sense of morbid threat from your inbox.

They promise:

Getting rid of the junk

We identify your subscription emails and neatly list them for you.

Do you remember signing up for that newsletter? We didn’t think so. Chances are, you’re drowning in unwanted email subscriptions.

We give you the option to unsubscribe from junk emails right off the bat. One click and they’re gone. Done.

I believe them; it works. No more car rental junk; no more dodgy pharma suppliers; no more microscopes; no more being overwhelmed searching for the signal amidst the noise. Now you get nicely bundled eToCs. And the lazy marketers are worried. And so they should be: what’s appears to be rational behaviour for the individual emailer is drowning us all in dross**. And one day we might get back to the time when opening your emails was a pleasure (c. 1998 is my guess!).

*Not really.

**Hot tip: try targeted or DM tweets. This are much easier to cope with and the depletion of cognitive bandwidth is lower.

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Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist