Research has shown that returning to email after a brief hiatus can be stressful. In a 2012 study, Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California at Irvine who studies how information-technology use affects people, prohibited some office workers from using email at all for one workweek, and let others maintain their usual use. She strapped heart-rate monitors on all of them. Mark found that the participants who were cut off from email experienced significant reductions in their stress levels, as indicated by changes in their resting heart rates. When people return to their regular routine, so does the stress, she says.
The best (worst) part is, Mark and her colleagues had trouble recruiting participants who were willing to go without email for five days. Our dedication to it runs so deep that even a brief intermission seems unrealistic. In the case of the out-of-office message I received, my implicit commitment to email, to the whole system, was so fixed that when I witnessed someone trying to break free, it felt wrong. And it seemed unfair.
Mason Peck, an engineer at Cornell University and a former NASA chief technologist, the owner of that out-of-office reply, recognizes that. But he had gotten to a point where he felt he could no longer handle the volume of distracting emails, he says, so he took drastic action.
“It’s a little cynical, I know, but I typically see emails as an uneven balance of trade,” Peck says. “Every email I answer, on average, helps other people more than it helps me.”
Mark has found in her research that email maintenance is about being in control; for some, the closer we get to inbox zero, the more say we feel we have over a never-ending stream of communications. Peck is similarly trying to gain control over his inbox.
“I don’t have to worry about your message unless you decide it’s important enough to repeat it,” he says. The system places the burden on the sender rather than the recipient, which may seem unfair. But Peck says it saves him extra stress—and it’s his inbox, after all.
“I feel better,” he says. “When I come back from vacation, I feel like, okay, I’ve got a fresh slate.”
Mark says she isn’t a fan of this practice, particularly because it upsets the balance of a delicate ecosystem in which participants, on average, share the burden. “This social system functions well because there’s this assumption that everybody plays along. I respond to email because I want people to respond to my emails. I do a favor for someone because I expect they’re going to do a favor for me sometime,” she says. “If one person drops of out of email, it kind of breaks that system and leads to people getting upset, and the burden is going to be distributed maybe unevenly.”
I had a similar reaction two years ago when my colleague Jim Hamblin suggested a new approach to email etiquette, aimed at reducing the amount of time we spend on email. His proposal: Emphasize brevity, skip the sign-offs (“best,” “cheers”), avoid greetings (“Write the recipient’s name if you must. But most people already know their names”), and keep the messages three sentences or shorter. In other words, don’t write emails like everybody else. In this way, Hamblin was, like Mason, breaking the system. But also like Mason, he was doing it for his sanity.