Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Email Pushes the Buttons of Our Engrained Need for Connection

Cal Newport, the New Yorker:

Given these stakes, it’s all the more surprising that we spend so little time trying to understand the source of this discontent. Many in the business community tend to dismiss the psychological toll from e-mail as an incidental side effect caused by bad in-box habits or a weak constitution. I’ve come to believe, however, that much deeper forces are at play in generating our mismatch with this tool, including some that get at the very core of what drives us as humans.


The flip side of an evolutionary obsession with social interaction is a corresponding feeling of distress when it’s thwarted. Much in the same way that our attraction to food is coupled with the gnawing sensation of hunger in its absence, our instinct to connect is accompanied by an anxious unease when we neglect these interactions. This matters in the office, because an unfortunate side effect of overwhelming e-mail communication is that it constantly exposes you to exactly this form of social distress. A frenetic approach to professional collaboration generates messages faster than you can keep up — you finish one response only to find that three more have arrived in the interim, and, while you are at home at night, or over the weekend, or when you are on vacation, you cannot escape the awareness that the missives in your in-box are piling up ever thicker in your absence.

It is awfully charming that the New Yorker continues to insist upon hyphenating “email” and “inbox”, as though these are new words heretofore unwritten and unpublished. Bless ’em.

I have found wild success in subverting my evolutionary bias for connection by simply turning notification sounds off. I keep many banners and badges on, but making them inaudible removes, for me, the urgency of each new thing I am supposed to deal with. But that is just the notifications; email itself is, according to Newport’s book extract, just as problematic.

I thought I had solved that by being atrocious at email. I archive liberally. I do not reply quickly or, often, ever. I can only hit inbox zero by deleting everything sight-unseen. The result of this is that there are several people awaiting my response to messages that are actually quite urgent.

Just look what this article has done: it has given me a reason to be stressed about email again.