How to tame your inbox

In our series of blog posts on the topic of email, we’ve outlined why and how email can simultaneously be a great communication tool and a source of frustration and stress.

You’ve probably experienced this at some point at work; taking a deep breath before opening your email application, or worrying about how your inbox will look when you return from holiday. You may have felt a twinge of anxiety as you hear a late night email notification, or the guilt of lying in bed at night, emailing your clients rather than sleeping.

So what can you do about it?

Research into how people use email, including our own recent ‘You’ve got mail!‘ project, has indicated that email can be a source of stress for many people. In part, this is due to the sheer volume of emails we receive, but it’s also due to our email-related behaviours and the way we think about email in the first place.

In terms of behaviours, people who check their email very early in the morning and/or very late in the evening report higher levels of email-related pressure. If this sounds like you – if you check your email before you’ve even had a coffee in the morning – it might be useful to consider whether you absolutely need to check your emails at this time. Yes, some jobs require you to do this, but most don’t if we’re honest with ourselves.

Have you developed a habit of checking and writing emails first thing in the morning or last thing at night? It might be more useful to start or end your day with something that doesn’t make you feel more stressed. How about planning your day and prioritising your work, before the priorities of others flood your inbox? Or even better finish your evening with a relaxing activity unrelated to work.

Indeed, there is some evidence that the blue light emitted by smartphones and tablets can disrupt your sleep. Another good reason to keep your email inbox ‘closed’ later in the evening.

You may also be contributing to your stress levels by leaving your email application on all day and/or using ‘push’ email, where the messages are sent to your smartphone without you checking for them. We found that both of these factors are associated with higher feelings of email pressure.

So you might find it useful to turn off your email app while you concentrate on something else. It may also be healthy to think about whether you really need your emails ‘pushed’ to you. Changing this setting is now pretty simple on most smartphones.

How about experimenting with these small changes and seeing how it feels after a couple of weeks?

It matters what you think

When it comes to how you think about email, do you associate it with pressure and do you have strong emotional reactions when reading the messages in your inbox? You may be falling into one of the mental traps psychologists call ‘thinking errors’.

Picture this example. You see a colleague’s name appear in your inbox and you instantly feel frustrated and angry. You might be guilty of ‘mind-reading’ if your emotions are based on what you ‘know’ the other person ‘really’ means by their message. Are you going to add telepathy to the list of skills featured on your LinkedIn profile? Probably not, because you can’t really read minds, so it’s healthier not to even try.

If you feel a compulsion to stay on top of your email and respond to every message even when it’s not required, you might be placing some ‘demandingness’ on yourself. This is the thinking error characterised by an inner voice that says ‘I must…’ or ‘I need…’ or even ‘I should…’. Challenge this kind of self-talk and consider whether it is useful to spend time checking your email, when you could be focusing on your other priorities.

Email behaviour and thinking often combine to form one habit many of us are guilty of: multi-tasking. We try to complete one task (e.g. a telephone call) while absent-mindedly working on another – reading our emails. The reality is, were not multi-tasking, we’re just doing two things badly. Focus on one of these things at a time and the quality of your work will improve and you’ll feel less stretched.

A final thought, and one many of us forget from time to time. If we want to receive fewer emails, we might want to start by sending fewer emails and responding to more of them using another method. Think twice before sending your next message as you may well be contributing to someone else’s nightmare inbox!

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