Friday, September 23, 2016

"Distraction Sickness"

In January 2015, I wrote about a resolution to take a break from e-mails on Saturdays.

That resolution failed, quickly.

Since then, I have been thinking a lot about my relationship with e-mail.

On one hand, I get a lot of positive feedback from students and colleagues about my responsiveness. On the other hand, constantly checking and responding to e-mails seems to cut against productivity on other (often more important) tasks.

Five or six weeks ago, I started drafting this post, hoping to share it after at least one week of only checking my e-mail two times a day (11am and 4pm). Then I changed the goal to three times a day (11am, 4pm, and 9pm and then 5am, 11am, 4pm). Efforts to limit e-mail in that rigid way failed, even though very little of what I do requires a response in less than 24 hours. On the positive side, I have been relatively good, recently, at not checking my e-mail when I am at home and my children are awake. 

A few days ago, I read Andrew Sullivan’s Piece in the New York Magazine on “Distraction Sickness.” His piece is long, but worth reading. A short excerpt is included below:

[The smart phone] went from unknown to indispensable in less than a decade. The handful of spaces where it was once impossible to be connected — the airplane, the subway, the wilderness — are dwindling fast. Even hiker backpacks now come fitted with battery power for smartphones. Perhaps the only “safe space” that still exists is the shower. Am I exaggerating? A small but detailed 2015 study of young adults found that participants were using their phones five hours a day, at 85 separate times. Most of these interactions were for less than 30 seconds, but they add up. Just as revealing: The users weren’t fully aware of how addicted they were. They thought they picked up their phones half as much as they actually did. But whether they were aware of it or not, a new technology had seized control of around one-third of these young adults’ waking hours. . . . this new epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness. And its threat is not so much to our minds, even as they shape-shift under the pressure. The threat is to our souls. At this rate, if the noise does not relent, we might even forget we have any. (emphasis added)

Academics seem to vary widely on how often they respond to e-mails, but I’d love to hear about the experience and practices of others. Oddly, in my experience with colleagues, those who are most prompt to respond to e-mails are usually also the most productive with their scholarship. I can’t really explain this, other than maybe these people are sitting at their computers more than others or are just ridiculously efficient. As with most things, I imagine there is an ideal balance to be pursued.

One thing I have learned is that setting expectations can be quite helpful. With students, I make clear on the first day of class and on the syllabus that e-mails will be returned within 24 business hours (though not necessarily more quickly than 24 business hours). I often respond to e-mails much more quickly than this, but this is helpful language to point a student to when he sends a 3am e-mail asking many substantive questions before an 8am exam.

Our students also struggle with "distraction sickness," and most of them know they are much too easily distracted by technology, but they are powerless against it. Ever since I banned laptops in my undergraduate classes, I have received many more thanks than pushback. The vast majority of students say they appreciate the technology break, but some can still be seen giving into the technology urge and (not so) secretly checking their phones.

Interested in how our readers manage their e-mails. Any tricks or rules that work for you? Feel free to e-mail me or leave your thoughts in the comments.

Business School, Current Affairs, Haskell Murray, Law School, Teaching, Technology, Web/Tech | Permalink


When I sit at my desk, I keep several browser tabs open that allow me to see emails and respond in nearly real time. I also have my found send push notifications of emails. I too think that it's a response to time spent at a law firm.

After I joined academic, I did have two experiences that made me realize this may not be a widely shared norm. First, I routinely received both emails and physical handouts of those emails in my inboxes. Both were annotated to note the duplication because some did not check their email and others did not check their mailboxes. Second, I sent an email to a colleague about a personal matter in mid-May. I got an out of office reply notifying me that I'd hear back in August.

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Sep 26, 2016 7:03:11 AM

err, "after i joined academia," ...

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Sep 26, 2016 7:03:29 AM

I also use real-time email notifications on both of my computers. I pick and choose what I want to respond to while I am at my computer. And I am at my computer whenever I am not in a meeting during the week . . . .

Posted by: joanheminway | Sep 26, 2016 9:56:27 PM

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