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How Email Is Killing Your Creativity

Email overload.Email overload.
Email overload.Illustration: Shout

MPW Insiders is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: How do you encourage creative thinking within your organization? is written by Beth Monaghan, CEO of InkHouse.

When’s the last time you had a great idea while you were staring at your email? It’s tough to complete a thought, never mind a great thought, amid all that noise while you’re watching all those emails stack up in a neat row, begging for an equal amount of attention right NOW. We could blame the iPhone for making email so mobile and so accessible and so invasive, but attention grab isn’t new.

See more: The Real Reason Why Your Ideas Aren’t Going Anywhere

Take 1938, the year Brenda Ueland wrote the book, If You Want to Write. She noted that the imagination “needs moodling — long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering. These people who are always briskly doing something and as busy as waltzing mice, they have little, sharp staccato ideas…..But they have no slow, big ideas.” In other words, your best ideas come when you’re rested.

Yet, we check our email 74 times per day — all while trying to tackle the dozens of other projects thrown our way. This multitasking is not ideal for creativity – in fact, it’s one of the biggest roadblocks we face. Multitasking is a myth, as psychologist and author Daniel Goleman wrote in his book. In fact, multitasking pretty much eliminates our ability to think deeply. And as Stanford professor Clifford Nass’s research shows, multitasking wastes more time than it saves.

It’s not reasonable to say that we should get rid of the devices that take up so much of our time, or the need to respond to every real human being who sends you an email (it’s the human thing to do), but we can create a workplace culture that fosters the mental space required for big ideas. If we want to create a workforce full of intelligent, kind and creative people, it’s our job to empower them to work in ways that fuel their creativity, allowing them the flexibility to create. Here are some measures that have worked at my firm, InkHouse.

  • Your email is not your work colleague: When you step into my office, you’ll notice that my computer is situated at the side of my desk in order to facilitate human connections. We also kept this in mind when searching for an office space. If you visit today, you’ll find an open layout full of collaboration. This impromptu brainstorming has birthed some of our most successful and creative campaigns.
  • End after hours: To encourage employees to have a personal life, InkHouse initiated a no email rule between the hours of 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. Of course there are exceptions, but we try to create rules that help people come back to a place of balance once those exceptions are over. At home, I have a designated spot for my phone so that I’m not constantly checking it, and I turn off email on the weekend. Let me put it this way: if Arianna Huffington is able to unplug, so can you.
  • Plan that trip: In order to allow employees to recharge, InkHouse initiated an unlimited vacation policy. And we encourage them to turn off email while they’re gone. That’s what team members are for! We hired smart, responsible people, and we trust everyone to use good judgment. We believe that what you do with your free time can have a big impact on how you perform at your job. When you take time away from work, you’re taking time to recharge your mind and body, which all works to aid in your professional success.
  • Block off time to center yourself: Being chained to your desk for eight hours a day does not equate to a day well spent. It’s important to always set aside some “me” time away from our inboxes in order to tend to our minds. For me that means waking up to meditate before my kids are up, which frees my mind in a way that allows for an hour of writing. Simply sitting quietly and drinking tea for 10 minutes or stepping outside often gives me brief moments of distance that allow an unprompted and unfiltered idea to jolt through the chaos.