Wednesday, July 30, 2014

On Reading Email (Once a Week)

I remember it very well. One day in the early 1990s I was reading the weekly journal of the University of Utrecht, where I was a student, and came across a small column that announced the invention and introduction of a brand-new way of communication. It was called “e-mail” (that stands for “electronic mail”, the note explained), and was extremely cheap because it used the telephone line to transmit entire text messages in just a fraction of a second. I was impressed. Could it really be true that instead of incurring expensive telephone bills for calling my friends at the other side of the Atlantic or of Europe, I could tell them everything I had to tell them for almost nothing? It seemed too good to be true. Surely there was a catch, and the telephone companies would find some other way to make us pay.
That is now more than twenty years ago, and I have forgotten what those early emails even looked like. Email has become so normal and omnipresent that we find it hard to imagine how people got anything done before the nineties. What did you do if you were organizing an international conference, for instance, and needed to communicate with your colleagues about all kinds of tiny details, correct misunderstandings, create
consensus, and so on? Well, there is an answer. We sat down to write letters. And having finished them, we had to go out and put them in a physical mailbox, or find a fax machine somewhere, in cases of great hurry. Or we made a phone call, in spite of the costs, and it all took a lot of time. Didn’t we have anything else to do than wasting hours and hours on such laborious and time-consuming procedures? Well, there’s an answer to that too. We could find the time, for a very simple reason. We did not need to spend hours every day reading email and responding to it.

When email was first introduced, its benefits seemed a bit similar to those of voicemail. Instead of having to deal with phonecall interruptions all the time, you could quietly read your messages at a moment of your own convenience. If people wanted to speak with you right away, well, bad luck for them, they just had to wait. But as email took over as the dominant means of communication, along with the introduction of visual and auditory cues ("you got mail!" - nowadays abbreviated as "bleep" or "boink" or just a number, for of course you got mail!) this quickly proved to be an illusion. Nowadays, email looks more like a wide open door that gives direct access to your home, with a large invitation over it: 

WELCOME! Everybody, known or unknown, may enter here at any moment, day or night, twenty-four hours a day. Feel free to walk straight into my study whenever you feel like it, and start talking to me about anything that’s on your mind, important or unimportant. I might be busy trying to concentrate on something when you enter, but no need to worry about that. Just start talking anyway. I’ll do my best to interrupt everything I’m doing right away, I'll listen to whatever you have to say, and will do what I can to answer immediately.

How normal is it, really, that we now find this normal? Should we even be surprised when scientists find that email increases mental stress and decreases our ability to concentrate? Or that our continuous exposure to internet, twitter, or texting cues causes our brain to get addicted to them, for straightforward chemical reasons based upon dopamine? As a result of that mechanism, known as a dopamine loop, the stream of interruptions gets even bigger: for if we are left in peace for a little while, this very fact makes us so nervous that we start interrupting ourselves.  
In his important and predictably controversial book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr begins with an observation that I trust will sound familiar to many of us:

I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in
the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. [...]
I think I know what’s going on. For well over a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web’s been a godsend to me as a writer. [...] The boons are real. But they come at a price. [...] [W]hat the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it [...].

Carr provides hard neurological evidence. Our brain is very flexible: it quickly learns in response to whatever we ask it to do – and unlearns what we neglect to ask it. At present, we continuously train ourselves to get better and better at those skills that allow us to use the Internet quickly and effectively. And boy do we get good at it! But it goes at the expense of other skills that the Internet just doesn’t require, or even discourages. Notably those skills of deep and prolonged concentration on one single piece of text – without continuous hyperlinks that move us instantaneously to another text, full of other hyperlinks that again move us elsewhere, and so on. The fact is that we are systematically training our brain not to concentrate on a line of thought, an argument, a narrative. We are training it in the art of breaking our concentration.

Reading Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle (yes, that's a hyperlink! Please stay with me anyway) made me aware of another dimension of email: that of guilt and social pressure. It is already bad enough that my concentration gets shattered whenever a new visitor walks into my study and issues a beep to interrupt what I’m doing. And it is even worse that when nobody walks in for five minutes, my dopamine compels me to get up and walk to my door to check whether anyone is coming yet, and that when I’m back at my desk, I am distracted because my brain keeps wondering why nobody is there to disturb me. 

! When will the next beep come? 

! Why haven't I heard it yet?

! Have they forgotten me? 

But the process does not stop there. When new visitors come in, as they invariably do, they expect me to answer quasi-immediately and are likely to take offense if I don’t. 

! I have received the email, haven’t I? 

! I have the technical means to respond, don’t I? 

! So then why the f@#$%^&! do I not respond? What is it that’s   keeping me? 

And even this can get worse. Similar to what happens in the dopamine loop (first you get interrupted by others, but eventually you don’t need them anymore: you’ve started doing it all by yourself), even if nobody is blaming me for being slow with my answers, I end up feeling guilty all by myself. 

! I don't want them to think I’m impolite and egoistic. 

! They might think I’m some arrogant ass (those professors, you know...) who finds his own stuff so important that he just can't be bothered to take an interest in others and respond to their needs. 

! Too busy? What nonsense! They get as many emails as I do. No cause for me to complain, as if I’m in some special category. If they can answer their emails, so can I. 

I have been thinking about these problems for a long time and have come to a clear decision. I refuse to be manipulated and disciplined into conformity with the logic of The Circle, and most importantly: I reserve the right to protect my own brain. I don't want to expose it systematically to conditions that limit my ability to do what I do best: concentrate. From now on (July 2014) I will therefore be reading my email once a week, and will disable it entirely during the rest of the week. I know that many people will find this incredibly radical, or preposterous, and some will get angry with me - so let me explain. It is really very simple. My core business as a scholar in the Humanities requires the ability of deep “concentration and contemplation” (as formulated by Carr). That is what I need most when I'm studying books, articles, or primary sources. I have a responsibility, to myself and to society, to protect and cultivate those skills, for if they wither and decline then the quality of my work will suffer. I know very well that even this brief explanation sounds like a justification or even an excuse. Perhaps it is. But if so, it nicely illustrates the very point I've just been making: like everyone else, I'm by no means immune to the guilt-inducing magic of The Circle.
Now I’m well aware that, even though these general problems of concentration/interruption, dopamine loops, or social pressure by the internalization of guilt are real and universal, something that doesn’t work for me might work better for others. Different people have different mental constitutions, not everybody responds in the same way to stress, and quite some friends and colleagues do not experience email as a problem the way I do. Some people are able to switch quickly from one task to another, and that's great for them, but I have never had that ability: I just happen to be a deep concentrator with a long and slow curve. Some people enjoy digital socializing, and that's great for them too, but I don’t: I find it empty and superficial and prefer meeting people face to face. Some people like to focus on information, and that's fine too, but my interest is in knowledge, which is not the same thing.
Am I too naive or optimistic in thinking that this could actually work? I’ll have to see how it works out in practice, especially as the new academic year begins. But one thing is clear: reading email once a week means that once I sit down to do it, I will be concentrating on it. 100%.
Postscript 2017

It does work, sort of. Or rather: it works very well, but it requires discipline, and you regularly need to remind yourself of why, exactly, you decided to implement this once-a-week rule in the first place and why it’s so important. Re-reading the entire text of my 2014 blogpost made me recognize that from time to time (and increasingly, as time went by) I did fall prey again to those unconscious dopamine cues and subtle psychological guilt-inducers mentioned above. Make no mistake about it: they are incredibly effective. The only way to fight them successfully is by remaining conscious of their presence and attentive to how they operate and how your brain responds to them.

What happened to me was that, from time to time, I knew somebody was about to send me (or had already sent me) an email that required a quick response; so at first I would simply activate my email program for that purpose, find that one email and answer it, while disregarding the rest. Fine. But after this had happened a few times, my brain had understood that it is in fact possible to read one single email and leave the rest to be handled on the designated “email day.” But if reading/answering just one single email is not seriously disruptive, or so my brain concluded, then surely picking out just two or three for quick processing cannot be such a big problem either.
And there I went down the slippery slope:
-   Before I knew it, rather than picking out that one email, I was scanning the list of unread messages in my mailbox to select those I felt could be more urgent and/or might easily be gotten out of the way right now, to leave the rest for the “email day.”
-   Soon enough, the number of messages I felt I could handle got determined by the amount of time I felt willing to spend on them on that particular day.
-    In fact, however, seeing all those unread messages sitting there, my brain sometimes got curious: “What is that one all about? Interesting header… I’ll just take a quick look.”
-    Also, my brain began to send messages along the lines of “if you get rid of those messages now, then your ‘email day’ will be so much shorter and easier! Instead of spending it on email, you’ll be free to spend a large part of it doing things you really want to do...” Needless to say, this meant that in fact I was not doing those things at that moment but ended up doing email instead: self-delusion.
-    And once I had broken my own email agreement a few times in this manner, it became quite easy to do it most days, or even every day, while still telling myself that basically I was “reading email once a week!” More self-delusion.

And so that is how it works, and why one needs to remain conscious and attentive all the time. The two chief factors are (1) unconscious addictive brain processes based on dopamine, and (2) psychological processes based on social guilt. They are particularly effective because the former acts behind the scenes while the latter presents itself as so ethically commendable. But make no mistake: both are powerful adversaries, opposed by their very nature to deep work and peace of mind.


  1. Go for it, Wouter! I may just follow your lead....

  2. Full support. I agree totally with your reasons! If I were in Amsterdam, so I would drop by your office for a coffee ;-)

  3. Further evidence: I read and responded to three emails while reading this post.

  4. I have been listening to a wonderful conference on Theosophy at Ben Gurion University. I was particularly interested on the paper on Theosophy and Eastern Europe.

    I think that these scholars should explore the possibility of a puppet world operating among the Royalty and leaders in the scientific and artistic communities. It is significant that all the leaders of the West in WWII, FDR, Truman, and Churchill were Freemasons. But I suggest you also explore parallel events in considering issues like the Russian Revolution in 1917. Nicola Tesla was a Serb who immigrated to New York and there became the rival of Thomas Edison for how to develop electro magnetic inventions such as electricity and radio. He often spoke of psychic experiences and studied with an eastern guru in New York. Tesla was developing a tower system which he claimed could create free world wide electricity when his economic backer, J.P.Morgan realized that he couldn't make much money off of such a system. Morgan pulled down Tesla's Tower in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution and then Morgan and his friends turned to the development of fossil fuels to make lots of money for wealthy investors. I certainly am not in favor of the excesses of Tsarist Russia, but I do wish we had followed modest, humble humanitarians like Tesla instead of the likes of J.P. Morgan as the oil industry has polluted our earth. As we move into the 21st century, your scholarship may help to undo the slander against leaders within occult groups and Freemasonry. They sometimes battle or compete among themselves or with other religious groups like the Catholic Church in ways not that different from the plot of the DaVinci Code. As we face the terrible challenges of climate change and overpopulation, it is extremely important that we protect human rights as we deal with food, water, and energy shortages. We will need truthful people who respect the rights of all people to make it through these trials without sacrificing the Judeo Christian heritage which Freemasonry and other occult groups have passed down in the US Bill of Rights, the US Constitution, and the UN Declaration of Human Rights. I hope you scholarly skills and your religious wisdom can help and guide us to avoid the violence and cruelty of totalitarian extremes like communism or fascism. Peace be with you in your important work.

  5. And some of those emails are as easy to answer to as the above comment...

  6. Thanks for introducing me to your self perception, since I admire your scholarly achievement so much.

    I have realized through personal experience the validity of the points you make here and i am taking steps to address the situation.

  7. God bless you! As wonderful an invention as the internet is, it's also a dreadful distraction. While I refuse to use a mobile to the annoyance of my family, email still bugs me. Concentration in life is essential.

  8. Hallo Wouter,

    Since you are Dutch and I am American, I hope you do not mind my using a Dutch stereotype to express my first impression of your blog posting here. As I was reading it, I suddenly pictured the little Dutch boy Peter holding his finger in the dike, as I recall the story from the Hans Brinker tale.

    Now I picture you as the beleaguered scholar Wouter holding his cyber-finger in the virtual-dike, perhaps wondering if he will ever be rescued by his cyber-townspeople.

    Well, as a cyber-passerby here, may I offer some sympathy and free unsolicited (the best kind) advice.

    You referenced Dave Eggers’ new novel about the Circle=Google company culture. Immediately I think of the ever more looming Google Cloud, and then I send you back in time to the 14th Century, where I reference for you the anonymously written book in Middle English called “The Cloud of Unknowing.” (The Cloude of Unknowyng)

    May I suggest you write an upgrade of that medieval classic, mainly because you strike me here in this lamentation about email as coming, well, . . . undone. Therefore I propose a more contemporary title:


    I even write an opening sentence for you:

    “In a Gutenberg Galaxy far far away, a scholar named Wouter was coming undone.”

    OK, I apologize for such snarkiness. So may I leave you with a more buoyant message as I must move on and leave you stuck here with your cyber finger in that virtual dike. (Don’t worry, when the dam finally breaks, we will all be swept away together!)

    The author of “The Cloud of Unknowing” wrote a sequel called: “The Book of Privy Counseling:”

    "And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest."

    With best regards

    Tom Mellett
    Los Angeles, CA

    (I'll spare you my email address)

  9. Hello Wouter,

    When you wrote:

    Should we even be surprised when scientists find that email increases mental stress and decreases our ability to concentrate? Or that our continuous exposure to internet, twitter, or texting cues causes our brain to get addicted to them, for straightforward chemical reasons based upon dopamine?

    As a result of that mechanism, known as a dopamine loop, the stream of interruptions gets even bigger: for if we are left in peace for a little while, this very fact makes us so nervous that we start interrupting ourselves.”

    I really felt your pain (albeit narcissistically echoed in my own mirror neurons) and so I knew I had to find the perfect app for you, and indeed I have succeeded.

    What you really need, Wouter, is the Dopamine App for your mobile phone which you can download for free here. (I copy some of the app descriptors below.)


    Apps that form habits become a part of users' lives.
    Habits fix retention, engagement, and growth.

    * The Dopamine API optimizes how your app uses reinforcement to supercharge habits.

    * The Dopamine API makes apps habit-forming and increases retention and engagement by up to 40%.

    * The Dopamine API is powered by models from neuroscience of how rewards rewire the brain. They let us compute reward patterns that hack each user's habits more effectively than anyone else can.

    * This gives your app an easy way to become habit-forming using proven science.


    Tom Mellett
    Los Angeles, CA

  10. The comments' section here is infested...

  11. Yes, it can be very disruptive. And when I am IN a book, I do not want to be disrupted and to have to find the waves again afterward.
    I already disabled the sounds of my WhatsApp (except the new phone).
    I changed it (in marketing terms) from push-messages to a moment that I can pull.
    Inge from Amsterdam

  12. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  13. Dear professor, I feel so attuned with what you wrote and as this was my first reading in your small hub here, I was really curious to see what you were actually writing about such an important subject as cyber, as this always adds to a very much needed observation people forget. It all got more interesting when you shared what cyber can do in relation to the art of book reading and concentration.
    Indeed, the inbox is really a house whose doors remain all the time opened and anyone can come in, as he or she might please. The roles somehow switch and one stands as if one were outside hisvery house, now haunted by all cosmetic criticism coming from inside the very house, from the others who entered and from annoying voices within.
    As for the web I don't even think it should be called surfing the net, because it isn't necessarily a flow, most likely, its like a fragmented journey by shifting attention from hyperlink unto hyperlink. This is quite different from the good ebbing stream of a book, where you can immerse yourself in the subtle life of imaginatio following one page after the other (be it conceptual or imaginal imaginatio). And we have barely scratched the surface of cyber, if the e-mail is an open house, facebook is even more ominous, forcing other people's lives into your brain - like a temple where all visitor is asking for attention and each conducing a soliloquy amounting to an orchestra of dissonance. If internet's mad travel of hyperlinking seriously deteriorates our ability to concentrate, I'd say facebook is seriously interfering with that part of one's mind that should be void and silent like the tao of all things, to accomodate criativity and depth instead of an going cyber intoxication of contents.

  14. "...the art of breaking our concentration" is a straight path to procrastination. Thanks a lot to the author for such actual thoughts!