Digital Detox: 3 home truths

De Montfort University hit the news this week after announcing a digital detox: switching off its social media channels for almost a week. Some might question the wisdom of doing this in term time when students have just returned from a festive break, but most of us recognise the symptoms the university is trying to highlight: a screen-dependent culture which may have links to poor mental health.

Personally I’m not an avid user of social media and don’t in fact have accounts on most of the major platforms, but nonetheless I did enjoy a digital break over Christmas: I didn’t look at email at all. While I’m fairly disciplined and generally don’t look at emails on my phone every few minutes during weekends and holidays, I do scan through every now and again to check there’s nothing urgent or important from key colleagues. Not looking at all, for a 10 day period, brought a sense of freedom that I’d almost forgotten. Even for the social media averse, today’s world of work seems to be driven by emails.

Of course, it was easier to avoid looking for emails at a time when I thought no-one would be sending them; had I looked I would not have been expecting many emails at all over the period when the university was shut down. This set me to wondering how many emails I do receive, and with what frequency, so I settled down for a half hour digital fix that, for me, is more addictive than scrolling through social media posts—playing with an excel spreadsheet.

Over the last few years I’ve monitored the number of emails I receive: usually about 20,000 each year (more than enough to keep you busy), both working in school and now at a university. An analysis of my inbox for 2018 revealed that just over a third of these ended up in the trash, leaving nearly 1200 that I had deemed worthy of attention, or needing a response (either an action or a reply). I should point out that the original 20,000 doesn’t include calendar responses or anything that had been diverted to the recycle bin, either proactively by me setting up rules to avoid problem senders (and to reduce my own “decision fatigue”), or by Microsoft’s magical algorithms that manage to screen out junk and clutter.

So, I’m left with about 56 “worthy” emails per working day. At a rough approximation that’s an hour’s work a day, just dealing with emails. And for how many days in 2018 did I set aside that time? None. So the first practical lesson I’ve learnt from this is that you can’t pretend to squeeze emails into a packed diary—I need to improve my time management.

The pattern of the emails’ arrival surprised me. Plotting the daily frequency through the year shows the peaks of term time and the troughs of holidays, including weaker dips that correspond with the school half terms. But I had expected a weekly saw-tooth pattern, because it feels as though the number of emails peaks on Mondays, and declines through the week with maybe half as many on a Friday. The graph below shows that although there are indeed fewer arriving on Fridays, the difference is not very marked.


In terms of my perceived difference between the beginning and end of the week, there are probably two additional factors, both related to the time I deal with emails rather than the time of their arrival. If I behave myself, then those emails that arrive over the weekend will still be filling my inbox on Monday morning, so contributing to Monday’s load. And I suspect I compound this by not properly dealing with everything on Fridays, giving in to the temptation to leave some of the day’s allocation of mail to the start of the following week, thus making Friday’s burden lighter but Monday’s heavier. So, lesson number 2 on time management: don’t procrastinate.

A more thorough statistical analysis shows that Mondays are the days with the greatest fluctuation in email arrivals. This is perhaps to be expected, as some Mondays may follow a period of inactivity which spurs a flurry of correspondence, while others are bank holidays when you’d hope activity would be much less. The most stable and predictable days are Wednesdays and Thursdays.

If I were looking to avoid emails, the months to be out of the country appear to be June and October, when the inbox swells markedly. August is unsurprisingly a month to get some “real” work done, but April (which included Easter) and of course December both generated just over half of June’s volume of correspondence.

There’s probably nothing very earth shattering in all of this. I seem to be broadly in line with worldwide averages in terms of the number of emails I actually receive (120 a day is an oft-quoted figure) and it would seem that I probably spend less time than most dealing with them. But beyond setting up rules to delete unwanted spam, or completely ignoring them in the pursuit of inbox infinity, the arrival of emails is largely not in my control. What I can do something about perhaps, is the number I send.

Turning to my sent box was, quite frankly, shocking. I’m not prepared to air all of my dirty laundry here—suffice to say in 2018 I sent over 6000 emails. I’m not a frequent user of reply to all unless it’s really necessary, but even so, a large number of these were to two or more recipients, which means that the net flow of “useful” emails to and from my account (I flatter myself that the ones I send are all useful) is about zero. So the third and most important point is this: I am part of the problem. Not only am I sending as many work emails as I receive, but I can also see that too many of these are sent in evenings and at weekends—times when I thought I’d switched off.

So, to end on a more positive note, I have made a somewhat belated new year’s resolution: I am going to send fewer emails this year. I might try talking to people (remember what we originally did with phones?), or even raising the bar on what I consider important enough to email, as strategies to achieve this. If nothing else, my colleagues should receive fewer emails so I can feel virtuous, but this in return may generate fewer replies, so satisfying my own selfish desires.

Chris Rolph

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