Is Email A Bigger Productivity Killer Than Marijuana? (UK Study Says Yes)

Tim sits at his desk. He fidgets. He knows he has to get some work done, but he can’t. He is going to be in big trouble if he doesn’t. Oops, his mind wandered off again, quickly, back to the task at hand. He fidgets again. “Ohhh, this is so hard. I feel uncomfortable” his mind groans. He looks at the clock, how long has it been? Is it time yet? The tension is building, it’s like a kettle boiling over. This is so hard.

Tim isn’t a 12 year old school student needing to do an assignment. Tim is in his twenties and has a successful corporate job. But he can’t sit still and concentrate on a single task to save his life. Sound familiar?

What We Do Everyday Shapes Our Brain

But Tim wasn’t always like this. It wasn’t until technology changed and made things way more accessible, that Tim found his habits changing. Slowly as his habits changed, Tim’s brain and then his behavior began to change. And slowly he became someone who has self-induced attention deficit disorder.

The brain is a remarkable organ and as humans we possess the most remarkable brain of all. Our higher functioning brain separates us from the primates, allowing us the use of intricate communication skills such as language, advanced manual dexterity, complex problem solving skills and higher cognitive thought processes such as philosophy.

It also allows us to check email every five minutes, quickly update our Facebook status and look at Twitter responses. If I wanted to, I could also send an SMS to someone else while talking to another person on the phone. Just because I can, does it mean I should?

It’s True, The Brain Can Change

Probably one of the most profound medical discoveries that has really gained a lot of attention recently is that of neuroplasticity. It is a fancy way of saying that the brain is not a fixed and rigid organ but a malleable one, which is molded and influenced by our environment and repetitive tasks.

The brain doesn’t discriminate between good and bad things to adapt to. Constantly thinking negative thoughts? That can become ingrained and that brain pattern can become stronger and stronger over time. Only every concentrating on one task for five minutes at a time before you check email, open a new browser or send out a tweet? Do that regularly everyday for a few months and you have rewired your brain and probably not for the better.

We live in an age now where there is no shortage of information or things battling for our attention (a previous article spoke about how advertisers are trying to break through the clutter). There is no problem being connected or online anymore. Most of us are online all day at work. Now our mobiles are online also, and if that’s not powerful enough you have your portable laptops and tablets to take around with you.

We are basically online every waking hour. There can be a constant stream of information or form of communication reaching us all the time. But what has this done for our ability to stay focused on one single task, concentrate on it and just get it done? Probably not a lot of good. The problem is most of us may not realize that these distractions are really hampering our productivity.

The Marijuana vs Email Study

This study is shocking to say the least.

There was a study by a psychiatrist at King’s College in London in 2005 that administered IQ tests to three different groups: the first group just performed the IQ test, the second group was distracted by email and ringing phones, and the third was stoned on marijuana.

It was no surprise the first group outperformed the other two by an average of ten points. What was surprising was the email/ringing phone group did worse than the stoners by six points.

“Workers distracted by email and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers, new research has claimed.”

The disruption of a task at hand can take up to 45 minutes until you ‘get back on track’. It is like there is a certain amount of cognitive momentum that is lost and takes time to regain.

Our Attention Is Like A Flashlight

We should look at our ability to concentrate on something as a flashlight. It can only shine brightly on one thing at a time. Sure you can spread the light out over many objects, but the strength and quality will be dissipated. Pick your one task and focus on it.

How Can I Improve My Ability To Focus?

Practice some form of meditation. Meditation can take many forms, but basically it is the ability to concentrate on one thing. Be it the breath, a repetitive mantra or a certain object. Meditation has been shown to be highly beneficial to the brain, especially the frontal lobes which are responsible for concentration.

A practice of meditation does not have to be sitting cross-legged on the floor. You can practice meditation with any daily activity by fully engaging and concentrating on the activity. It can be done during washing the dishes. Instead of letting your mind wander aimlessly while dishwashing, bring it back to the present moment. At first it will be very difficult, but over time you will find it easier to do.


I think the best place to start is to just be mindful of our daily habits and the effect they can have on us. I see the unfortunate results of mindless behavior everyday now in adults with the attention spans of children. For example, a grown adult who cannot carry on a proper conversation with another adult in front of them without having to answer and reply to a text message. Be here now and be mindful of your current moment.

Yaro Starak



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  • Yes it can be but you must stay discipline if you want to get things done online. You learn to shut things off and put email on a schedule.

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

  • Yet another reason to legalize marijuana!

  • hell yes … emails are taking too much of our time 😉

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  • I’m struggling with this right now, but i’m seeing noticeable improvements. about 2 years ago, i used to wake up, check my To-Do list, i start reading my emails, after a big while i realize that i didn’t finish any of the tasks in my list and i wonder WHY! Now i don’t open anything when i’m starting in the morning. I make sure everything is done and then open my inbox, see some videos…etc.

  • I love the way you have explained the concept of neuroplasticity. Your examples of how we can have self-induced ADD are so accessible; they’re something we can all relate to.

    I also love your recommendation to practice meditation. As someone who has had such a practice for more than 20 years now, I can attest to the power of meditation to alter the brain.

    There is another practice that I’d like to share with your readers that I believe is equally effective for altering brain function. That practice is known as meridian tapping, or EFT (which stands for Emotional Freedom Techniques).

    Here’s how EFT works. You focus on a problem (like your addiction to your email, for example), while lightly tapping on a series of points on your face and upper body. The points correspond with energy meridians that have been identified and used for centuries in practices such as acupuncture.

    Researchers are finding that by tapping on these points, you can change your brain’s response to environmental stimuli.

    So let’s say you’re trying to work on a document, but the instant you hear a ding on your computer announcing the arrival of a new email, you abandon your writing to check your messages, essentially disrupting the flow of your work. You know you could quit your email program before your start working on your document, but you won’t do that.

    To address this, you would tap through the meridian points while focusing on your inability to ignore your email (I have a complete explanation of how to use tapping on my website).

    As you explained above, when we do something repeatedly, we create a habit. Habits are associated with neural pathways in the brain. So what happens with EFT is we begin to erase that neural pathway. We can even use EFT to create new, more desirable behaviors.

    It’s a pretty amazing process, one that I wouldn’t be such a strong advocate of if I hadn’t had numerous opportunities to experience the effects of EFT myself.

    If you find your productivity is compromised because of poor habits, consider giving EFT a try. You might be pleasantly surprised by what you discover!

  • Use of technology should definitely be managed, having the latest gadgets, software, etc. does not automatically make a person more productive.

    I agree that focus is the key here and I like the way you use a flashlight as an example to get this point across. People should revert back to making a traditional to-do list and stick to a routine they think works best for them. Otherwise, it is simply too hard to focus on a task and get the job done with all the technological distractions around.

    Surely people need not check their Facebook or Twitter every minute, nor answer e-mails as fast as they should unless it is a life and death situation. More people think and feel they are very busy because of this when in actuality, they are not achieving the important tasks.

  • I actually went through the process you are explaining here of loosing focus online and it took me several months of forcing myself to stay away from email and other distractions to actually overcome the problem – also it does come back if you are not careful.

  • Would of been interesting to see what the research would of said about Music, if it is a productivity killer. When I took a music course in college, a professor said that out of all the musics, classic musical is the one that will actually increase your productivity, and IQ learning, at least thats what his research showed.


    • Hi Jean

      Good question. There is a lot of research to support the benefits of classical music, especially Mozart. This type of music is extremely intricate and layered and this has been shown to be very beneficial to the brain.


      • Leevi, that is exactly what he mentioned, that someone who listened to Mozart while studying consistently earned a higher grade than someone listening to any other music, that included Rock, Metal, Rap, etc. Quite fascinating that music from the 1700s can have such a profounding influence like that on our brains to this day.


        • Hi Jean

          It is very interesting and it has to do with the intricacies of the music. Compared to now-a-days when often music can be some beats or simple rhythm, Mozart is very intricate and temporal in nature, it is really like a story with highs and lows, slow and fast parts. Apparently this complex nature is the reason for such positive brain effects.


  • I can imagine biologists saying that the human body wasn’t designed for 9-5 office work, but we’re re-writing that. One of the harms is a lack of concentration. But on the other hand, you have studies saying that allowing your employees to distract themselves with social media and such at work actually makes them more productive.

    • Good point.

      This should be taken in context and most likely relates to “turning off” or recharging.

      When you are away from work, not working or have allocated rest time – then you should rest. We have natural rhythms and should treat our work day as sprint sessions – when you work you work. And we should periodically have rest periods to recharge.

      Hard “on” periods with “off” periods interspersed are more productive than long slow “on” periods with little rest.

      More detail can be found in Tony Schwartz’s book The Power of Full Engagement.

  • Hey Leevi, this is an interesting post. I’m always rattling on about the brain/mind so I was totally drawn to read this…not to mention the title. I’m going to share this on FB just for the title alone:) So, what do you do to stay focussed?

    I can be really focussed in things I enjoy, but with things that I have mental blocks around, I find I will let myself get distracted more easily. Like right now, I’m supposed to be writing 3 sales letters…instead I’m commenting on your post : /

    Great post, great title too, cheers, neroli

    • Hi Neroli

      Thanks for the compliments.

      In 2 weeks time I will detail more about a “solution” to these problems.

      But in short you should check out the work of Tony Schwartz – The power of full engagement and Brian Tracy – Eat that frog.

      I am a big fan of putting the biggest/hardest tasks at the beginning of the day when freshest and getting them out of the way.

      And lately I have found real benefit in Tony Schwartz’s approach to respecting that work should be a serious of intense sprints with intermittent rest periods and not a long low intensity marathon day. So when I work, I work, when I rest, I rest or turn off completely. I do something totally different like go for a walk, read a book or watch a movie.

      Hope that helps but keep an eye out for the next productivity article in about a week from now.


  • Beautiful insights and great job connecting the dots.

    I especially like the flashlight metaphor.

    I think the key to better focus is actually having something incredibly compelling to focus on … finding the thing that sucks us in like a black hole.

    Just like we suddenly find time to “play with our new puppy,” I think we suddenly have laser-like focus when we latch on to something that lights our fire.

    I’m actually surprised by how many strategies and tactics there are for improving focus. I challenged myself to focus on “focus” a couple weekend back. I gave myself four hours to write my best lessons learned on the art and science of improving focus. I ended up with a set of 69 guidelines, principles, patterns, and practices for improving focus. I shared them on Getting under “Guidelines.”

    What surprised me the most was how much when we focus on something it expands. I expected to have maybe 10 – 20 guidelines, but the more I focused, the more I found more precise distinctions that were worth carving out into their own one-liner reminders.

    I think my favorite insight about focus was actually figuring out what works against our focus: Conflict, confusion, and chaos.

    Basically, when we have internal conflict, we get distracted and look for where the grass is greener. When we have confusion, it’s easy to go into hamster mode. When there is chaos or clutter, it’s easier to get distracted.

  • Very interesting Leevi – I would like to have your thoughts on the next step: So, what is the solution?

    Checking emails and twitter once a day? or ‘de-emailizing’ ‘de-socializing’ for a week or what?

    Do we need to have some kind of best practices in the world of social media to ensure that we don’t suffer deterioration of quality in our work?


    Malik Mirza

    • Hi Malik

      The solution really depends on your end goals and priorities.

      I will talk more about this in a new productivity article in about 1 week.

      If your goal is to be a social media king and keep up with all the happenings then your “work day” may look very different to the information marketer who writes articles to promote their products.

      I really think it depends on what you want to achieve.

      I think being in control and making a choice based on your goals about what you wish to accomplish. Some recommendations may include checking email twice a day at 11am and 4pm.

      Using social media as a reward after we have finished the important work that needs to be done


  • Why didn’t you link to that study you mentioned? ಠ_ಠ

  • Wow the result of the study about email and marijuana affecting the IQ test result is very interesting. I would love to read more details about it

  • for those interested in more details


  • […] 3. Emails and Ringing phones affects productivity more than Marijuana […]

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