Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 (16)

The power of Email

If you haven’t said it today, then you will probably have written it, “Can you just email me.” Social media may dominate communication among certain portions of the population, but email continues to thrive. More than 100 million new email accounts are generated every year, and in business emails are the lubricant that allows information to flow. We request and supply emails with such a casual ease it is as if there is no cost and no consequence to the act. Yet just like the butterfly who thinks the spider won’t notice if it lands on its web, you are kidding yourself if you think that emails are innocuous. As we shall see as we open the topic that is “email”, the subject line does not matter and to an extent neither does the content, because it is the very fact and nature of email that has huge consequences for you and the planet you inhabit.

Massive missives

Statistics are always arguable, but if I were just to say to you that we, humans in the third decade of the 21st century, send “lots” of emails then the sheer magnitude of what we are talking about here may be lost. So let’s begin our immersion in email with the meta-statistic reported by Prosperity Media, which says that right now there are approximately 5.6 billion active email accounts in the world. The estimate is that each day we send more than 215 million emails, which breaks down to more than 149,500 emails sent every minute. Depending on your reading speed that means that while you read this paragraph between 24,000 and 35,000 emails rained down from the cloud.

Estimates for private individuals are harder to establish, but it is fairly well agreed that working people receive, on average, 120 emails a day. Research from Loughborough University has found that it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after reading an email. This means that if you check your email every five minutes you spend around 8.5 hours per week, more than one workday, just working out what you were thinking about before you checked your email. Maybe checking your email every five minutes seems a touch compulsive, but let’s look at it another way. On average people only respond to 25 per cent of the emails they receive each day. This means that unread emails accumulate in your inbox at a significant rate unless you have a deliberate clear-out plan. If you go to your email inbox just 15 times per day and spend only four seconds looking at each email (which is the amount of time it takes to preview the average email) and if you only reread 10 per cent of the emails, then you will still lose 27 minutes each day in pure dead time. That is on top of the estimated three hours per day people spend checking email at work and the additional two hours checking personal emails, according to the 2019 Adobe Email Usage Study. However you slice it, emails are damaging to productivity, but they are also a stress for you.

Tom Jackson is a professor of information and knowledge management at the Loughborough University School of Business and Economics. According to Jackson’s research, there is a definite link between email use and stress. His work has built on other studies showing that people commonly experience annoyance upon receiving emails due to the experience of several negative effects from emails including increased expectations, misinterpretation, alienation and the facilitation of a blame culture. Measurements of the stress hormone cortisol, blood pressure and heart rate all support that emails raise your stress levels.

Stress can be a bit of a catch-all phrase that blinds us to the true impact of things, but Emma Seppälä, lecturer at the Yale School of Management, has dug a little deeper. Seppälä believes that each email is an emotional event. It might be a boss or colleague asking you to do something quickly, a disturbing message from a family member or someone giving any sort of unexpected news. According to Seppälä, an hour of email can take you through a range of emotions in a time frame that we are just not evolved to cope with.

There is no doubt that the flood of daily email can have negative effects on your wellbeing, but even more than that, it can be damaging for the planet too.

Email footprints

Most emails are stored in “the cloud”. Cloud storage requires quite a lot of electricity, which at the moment is still generated in large parts of the world using fossil fuels. Mike Berners-Lee (brother to the man who invented the internet Tim Berners-Lee) has estimated the amount of carbon generated by emails in his book How Bad Are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything. He calculated that:

  • An average spam email generates 0.3g of CO2
  • Standard emails generate 4g of CO2
  • An email with sizeable attachments generates up to 50g of CO2

To give some context to those numbers, Berners-Lee calculated that a typical businessperson creates 135kg of CO2 every year by sending emails, and that equates to driving 321 kilometres in a car.

Email has real impacts on our emissions, but the correlate is that email is therefore also a means to rein in our emissions. It has been estimated by the UK cross-party think tank Policy Connect that changes to information and communications technology have the potential to reduce greenhouse emissions by 15.3 per cent by 2030. While that is happening you can make some changes to your own email habits that will protect the planet.

The ultimate is to aim for “Inbox Zero”, managing your email so that your inbox is empty, or as close as possible to empty, at all times. If that seems impossible right now as you glance at your 35,000 unopened emails, then on your way to Inbox Zero some instantly achievable steps are:

  • Unsubscribe from mail lists you don’t use.
  • Keep your own mailing lists up to date. Write concisely (the bigger the email, the higher the emissions).
  • Check your emails before you send to avoid sending follow-up email.
  • Send links to files rather than huge attachments.
  • Only send an email when people need the information you are sending.
  • Avoid sharing your email address unnecessarily.
  • Delete spam emails. More than 100 billion spam emails are sent every year. If every person deleted just 10 of those emails we could save 1.7 million gigabytes of cloud storage space and 55 million kilowatts of power with the associated emissions.

These are steps we can all take to help protect the planet, but equally importantly, there are ways protect you against the email assault.

Personal email survival

Making some simple changes to how you interact with email can improve your own mental health significantly and make you more productive into the bargain.

Start by turning off email notifications and just check your email every two hours. When you do this move every email out of your inbox the first time you read it, meaning that you must make a decision about where it needs to go or if it can be deleted.

If you are looking for an old email, use the search function in your inbox; they are efficient these days and mean that you don’t have to troll through other emails and be distracted, or disturbed, along the way.

Research tells us that having many folders into which you can slot emails can waste around 11 minutes of your day. In a work week, that is almost an hour. So just have two folders, label them how you want but Archive and Active might work, and put emails from your inbox direct into one or the other.

Take charge of your inbox and rule it, rather than having it rule you. Email is a marvellous tool if you are smart about how you use it.





Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

You May Also Like

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 05 28t121831.547

Daily Rituals for Radiant Skin and Mindful Living

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 05 01t103309.503

Breaking Out of Prison: The Search For Humane Pathways

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 04 26t150309.380

Pet-friendly Herb Gardens

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 04 17t142941.179

Adapting to droughts