Who would have thought that email anxiety would become a real problem in the digital age. Well it has, and the majority of us are suffering in one way or another.
A few years ago I wrote a post about mindful email practice. And it’s no surprise that since writing that post – way back when I had a Blackberry (remember those?) – that email has gone from strength to strength.
We get more email than ever, and beyond talking is our primary method of communication.
Yet unlike paperwork, which most of us get on top of in a day or so by using folders with handwritten labels to categorize business and personal accounts, our email inboxes are constantly over-flowing and the task seemingly endless.
To cope, we have developed an unwritten organisational etiquette, which in turn has become a source of stress and frustration.
Thinking about it, this is quite odd, because email is a digital format that offers a host of tools for organization: Folders, sub-folders, different colour flags, stars, filter by a host of options, etc. If anything, it should be a joy to work with.
The problem is that we simply get too much email. We have to keep too much of it. We have to ponder the outcome of every arrival. And as a result, we have to think about email far too much.
Because of its global format, we receive email at all different times. This means we might wake up to a mountain of this virtual paper, only for it to be followed by the arrival of the morning’s correspondence before we've had a chance to clear the nigh shift.
So we quickly reply to that which needs immediate attention, flag what needs to be addressed, and try to delete the spam and nonsense. It never ends.
Email Stress & How to Solve It!
Tip 1: 10-A-Day
Day by day, the inbox mountain grows. This affects the mind, causing us mental stress.
The main problem is that we just can't keep up. It's always there, nagging to be answered, organised, deleted, marked as spam, forwarded or pondered.
Personally, I feel great giving an email a red flag, which in my world means “important, must read or address soon”. But I feel demoralised when I see 500+ red flagged emails that all started with good intention but ended up just joining the never-ending mountain, albeit in a slightly different context.
Despite my weekly clear out suggestion in this post, I haven't been able to keep on top. So I've devised a very simple solution.
It's called 10-a-day.
Each morning, after reading my email over coffee. I go to my red flag box and read, take action on and delete 10 emails with red flags. I have been doing this for a week now and the pile shrinking, slowly but steadily.
It's a great feeling to make progress on this each day. It doesn't take up too much of my time either. I don't want to spend longer in my inbox than I do already, so this incremental clear out is a more mindful, manageable approach.
In truth, on days when I've quickly identified a number of emails as old and useless, I've been able to work through more than 10. Sometimes I do 20 or more. But 10 is the minimum and what I have written as a permanent to-do on my notepad.
I estimate that my red flag box will be clear by the end of the month. I will then move on to tackle all my old folders.
Limit How Often You Check Your Email
Tip 2: Frequency Scheduling
I've also started to reduce how many times I check my email each day. I found that I had developed a compulsion to check my email, doing so multiple times a day – perhaps 15-20 or more.
It was always lingering in the back of my mind, especially when away from my computer and carrying my phone. This really impacts on the quality time spent with family and friends.
Having your phone synced to receive emails means being constantly available, constantly connected. Effectively, you are always at work, even on the weekend.
One study showed that limiting the frequency of checking email throughout the day reduced daily stress.
124 adults were randomly assigned to limit checking their email to three times a day; during the other week, participants could check their email an unlimited number of times per day. We found that during the limited email use week, participants experienced significantly lower daily stress than during the unlimited email use week. Lower stress, in turn, predicted higher well-being on a diverse range of well-being outcomes. These findings highlight the benefits of checking email less frequently for reducing psychological stress.
I have turned off email notifications on my laptop too. Otherwise I am constantly interrupted while working.
Ron Friedman, a psychologist and author of The Best Place To Work says that “each time a notification comes up the brain is forced to make a series of decisions; Check email or keep going? Respond now or later?). This drains our mental energy.
Even brief interruptions exponentially increase our chances of making mistakes. This is because when our attention is diverted, we use up valuable cognitive resources reorienting ourselves, leaving less mental energy for completing our work”.
It's far better to schedule 2-3 times a day to check your email, at say 9am, 12pm, 3pm. Outside of these times, you don't need to think about email at all, unless you really are waiting on something urgent.
Allowing yourself to be interrupted every time an email comes in means you are never fully immersed in the task at hand and won't be giving it your full attention.
Scheduling specific times to check your email means you are able to mentally disconnect from your inbox and be more present in what you are doing.
So there you have it. To alleviate the stress of an overflowing email inbox, and of constant notifications vying for your attention , try my 10-a-day clear out rule, and replace notifications – whether on your mobile or desktop – with a daily schedule for checking your email.