Most of us check our email too often. According to one study, three-quarters of U.S. workers respond to an email within an hour of receiving it, and 81% of us are checking work mail outside the office, either on weeknights or weekends. A staggering 55% are still refreshing their inboxes after 11pm.
So yes, fine, we have a problem. But how do we fix it? This isn’t like realising you’re an alcoholic, and you just need to quit the bottle cold turkey. We exist in a world where email is a fact of life. So what’s a happy medium? How many emails, on average, should you actually read in a day, and what number crosses a line into unhealthy?
Science finally has an answer. The magic number is… five.
In a Canadian study, published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour, 124 adults—with professions ranging from students to physicians—were asked to check their emails on a very specific schedule. Participants reported feeling less stress when they looked at their work email only about five times a day rather than having free rein all day long.
What is it about five that makes it the perfect number? As it turns out, five is how often people checked their email when they promised to check it less.
“We simply asked people to check their email three times, and they managed to get it down to an average of five,” says study author Dr. Kostadin Kushlev. “The optimal number of times would depend on the job and the day. I think the key is for each individual to decide, along with their boss and colleagues, what’s truly necessary and what comes from compulsion and habit to check.”
If you already know you have a problem, there are strategies you can start trying immediately. Set times to manage your inbox—say, 10 minutes at the top of each hour—and switch off your notifications the rest of the day.
Related: The One Trick That’ll Destroy Stress
As part of the study, certain participants were asked to close down their mailboxes when they weren’t actively checking their email. “This seemed to help people reduce the temptation to check more often than is necessary,” says Kushlev. “I think anything that helps control the constant flow of incoming messages and gives you email-free concentration time, even if it’s 20 minutes at a time, should work.”
A healthy relationship with email isn’t about numbers. Whether you answered five emails today or 100, it’s how those emails were answered that matters. “It’s about taking control over your mailbox and not allowing it to distract you whenever somebody decided to send you an email,” says Kushlev.