simon_baron_cohen's picture
Professor of Developmental Psychopathology, University of Cambridge; Fellow, Trinity College, Cambridge; Director, Autism Research Centre, Cambridge; Author, The Pattern Seekers
1000 Hours a Year

Like you, all my email goes into my Sent Mailbox, just sitting there if I want to check back at what I said to whom years ago. So what a surprise to see that I send approximately 18,250 emails each year (roughly 50 a day). Assuming 3 minutes per email (let's face it, I can't afford to spend too long thinking about what I want to say), that's about 1000 hours a year on email alone. I've been on email since the early 90s. Was that time well spent?

The answer is both yes and no. Yes, I have been able to keep in touch with family, friends, and colleagues in far-flung corners of the planet with ease, and have managed to pull off projects with teams spread across different cities in timescales that previously would have been unthinkable. All this feeds my continued use of email. But whilst these undoubted benefits are the reasons why I continue to email, it is not without its own cost. Most importantly, as the above analysis shows, email eats my time just as it likely eats yours. And unlike Darwin's famous 15,000 letters (penned with thought, and now the subject of the Darwin Correspondence Project in my university library in Cambridge), three-minute email exchanges do not deliver communication with any depth and as such are not intellectually valuable in their own right.

And we all recognize that email has its addictive side. Each time a message arrives there's just the chance that it might contain something exciting, something new, something special, a new opportunity. Like all effective behavioural reinforcement schedules, the reward is very intermittent: Maybe one in 100 emails contain something I really want to know or hear about. That's just enough to keep me checking my Inbox, but that means perhaps only 10 of the 1000 hours I spent on emails this year were actually wanted.

Bite-size emails also carry another cost: We all know there's no substitution for thinking hard and deep about a problem and how to solve it, or for getting to grips with a new area, and such tasks demand long periods of concentrated attention. Persistent, frequent email messages threaten our capacity for the real work. Becoming aware of what email is doing to our allocation of time is the first step to re-gaining control. Like other potential addictions we should perhaps attempt to counter the email habit by restricting it to certain times of the day, or by creating email-free zones by turning off Wi-Fi. This year's Edge question at least gives me pause to think whether I really want to be spending 1000 hours a year on email, at the expense of more valuable activities.