The Tyranny of Email


Many people complain that they get too many emails and there’s even a phenomenon called Inbox Zero. But do we really get that many emails? And do we really want fewer emails?

In the book The Tyranny of Email, John Freeman claims the average office worker “sends and receives two hundred emails a day.” According to various online sources, the average number of emails sent per day by business accounts is around 100. The average employee in my company receives less than 100 emails per day; 80% of which are from co-workers.

While 100 emails per day is significant, it’s far less than most of us claim. And research has shown we like getting email. In fact, we’re addicted to it.

In the past, only a few professions—doctors, plumbers perhaps, emergency service technicians, prime ministers—required this kind of state of being constantly on call. Now, almost all of us live this way. Everything must be attended to—and if it isn’t, chances are another email will appear in a few hours asking if indeed the first message was received at all.

Tom Stafford, a lecturer in psychology and cognitive science at the University of Sheffield, explains that email addiction works on the same principle as a slot machine. In variable interval reinforcement, if we perform an action that doesn’t always pay out – but does some of the time – we are trained to keep repeating the action so that we can get the reward.

So it is with e-mail. We need to keep clicking send/receive to get the reward we’ve come to expect will arrive sooner or later. […] As with any vice, it’s a disaster when you take e-mail away, even if only for a few hours.

For this reason, some psychologists are pushing to have email addiction classified as a clinical disorder.

So what can you do to break your email addiction?

There’s no lack of people willing to give advice, including the last chapter of Freeman’s book. Much of the advice boils down to checking your email less often and definitely not first thing in the morning or late at night. But I’m not sure this advice is particularly useful – it’s like telling a gambler to play poker less often.

The best thing you can do to reduce the number of emails you get is to send less of them. The fewer you send, the fewer you’ll get. You’ll slowly detox.

If you enjoyed this blog, it would be great if you shared it with others. But please don’t email it.

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3 Responses to The Tyranny of Email

  1. ProductivityTraining (@OutlookGuru) May 1, 2017 at 5:59 pm #

    Please don’t email me…lol

  2. Karlheinz May 2, 2017 at 12:35 am #

    The issue with this kind of e-mail additiction, particularly with the “state of being constantly on call” is that it interfers with the famous “flow” which, in my own experience, is key to being really productive and happy. Therefore, yes, even 50 mails a day can be way too much, and listening to advice on what to do about this kind of addiction is a good thing to do.

  3. Valery Prince August 30, 2020 at 3:55 am #

    a global theme, from time immemorial. in this regard and companies try to protect users from possible tyranny or, much worse, bullying. People … people do it all. Alas

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