These 13 Lucky Jerks Ditched Email for a Week, for Science

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Digital detoxes are en vogue right now, and yet it’s really hard to imagine a week without email. But 13 lucky souls at a government facility did it and lived to tell the tale for science.

The experiment might sound familiar and like a tired trope — people deserting email, feeling anxious at first, finding some sense of serenity and Zen soon afterward, then getting actually productive and busting out some solid work with zero distractions. But this particular study has two key distinctions. First of all, it’s at a government facility. Most email-ditching studies are concentrated in tech-savvy environments, like start-ups or academic institutions. That means there’s a self-selected bias involved: People in those studies are usually more aware of their own productivity patterns as compared to the general population. A government facility is much more reflective of the “average” person. Second, there were some key differences in the roles of these 13 participants: Some were managers, others were not, and all were from different teams within the company.

There was a before-and-after aspect to this little study as well. Researchers kicked things off by outfitting the entire company — not just the lucky 13 — with heart-rate monitors and sensors to measure how often workers got interrupted, how often they moved around, and what sorts of breaks they were taking. They also slipped a program into everyone’s computers to measure how often their cursor inched toward their Outlook box to address a ping, how long a page was open, and tab switching. In short: Your regular day at the office.

Next came the experiment. Our 13 email eradicators for the week went cold turkey and were understandably anxious right off the bat. But some immediate differences popped up. For one, the participants were out of their chair more often — without email, it made sense to amble over to a co-worker and hash things out in person. Another positive benefit was “deep work,” that ultimate in-the-zone focus that we’ve discussed previously on Science of Us, where people do the seemingly extraordinary and just focus on one thing at a time until it’s completely done. Without email, the study participants were more capable of doing that. Plus, they seemed to have lower heart rates, with many telling researchers they felt happier and less anxious.

Okay, okay. So that’s all rainbows and unicorns, but what about afterward, when you have to deal with a deluge of unanswered emails, like that whole day after a vacation that you spend slogging through your in-box? Here, too, the 13 participants had achieved a sense of chill: They just shrugged their shoulders, hunkered over, and dealt with the task, reporting that it was easier to deal with chunks of email in bulk rather than each one as they arrived through the day. In fact, many participants reported that they noticed how lots of emails addressed concerns that actually weren’t all that important or could have been figured out with a little work on the sender’s part — which indicates that a lot of that email we both send and receive is pretty useless and just drudgery.

Admittedly, a sample size of 13 is extremely tiny. But the fact that the group was diverse and came from a previously understudied cross-section means we can (and perhaps should) consider at least closing our in-box for periods during the day, talk to our co-worker about the day, and settle in for a more peaceful, productive day on the clock.