In 2005, I opened up a Gmail account and received my first message welcoming me to my new inbox. Today, my account contains 39,000 messages—including the 8,700 I haven't yet opened. To say that it's a source of stress would be an understatement. Between Gmail, work accounts, Slack, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Trello, text messages and yes, the occasional phone-call, it feels like an endless game of whack-a-mole. The minute I respond to one message, another pops up, leaving me with the gnawing sensation that I will never, ever catch up—especially if I want to accomplish anything aside from correspondence. With email, "you have the false sensation of advancing toward a goal, but the moment you look away, the target shifts further into the distance as more messages roll in," Jocelyn K. Glei, author of Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real, tells The Muse.
I may have an exceptionally daunting inbox, but my anxiety about it isn't unique. On average, Americans spend 6.5 hours a day just checking their email—that doesn't include reading or responding to messages. That kind of time suck has taken its toll. With record rates of stress and anxiety among the millennial workforce, the expectation of flexible boundaries and constant communication may be partly to blame. According to one recent Virginia Tech study, managing the barrage of work emails at all hours of the day along with personal responsibilities, "triggers feelings of anxiety and endangers work and personal lives."
It's no wonder we break into cold sweats when we open our email accounts. "A lot of people easily get hundreds of emails a day," occupational therapist Angela Lockwood tells the Sydney Morning Herald. "They get anxious, thinking, 'I don't know how I'm going to cope.'" The result is a very real and uncomfortable anxiety that can be paralyzing. So how do we avoid this feeling without avoiding our email altogether? Here's some expert advice I'll be taking to heart.
Turn Off Your Alerts
The first thing you need to do is turn down the volume on the noise. If you have notifications on your phone that pop up every time you get a new email or social media alert, shut it off. "Email anxiety is very much around that constant intrusion into our day from notifications," suggests Lockwood, author of Switch Off: How to Find Calm In A Noisy World. "So the anxiety doesn't just happen when you open your computer in the morning, it's constant throughout the day." In today's world we're expected to be multitaskers, but it's impossible to complete just one task if we're constantly distracted by reminders of others. It's not like you're going to forget to check your accounts throughout the day, but in order to avoid that panic of inundation, you need the ability to focus on one thing, rather than a million little beeps and buzzes that may not be a priority at the moment.
Batch Your Tasks
"To achieve maximum productivity, we should schedule, prioritize and match the most important tasks that demand the majority of our attention with our periods of high energy levels," suggests The Ladders' Mayo Oshin. "On the flip side, our least important or less demanding tasks should be matched with the lower periods of energy." That means setting aside chunks of time during the day to deal with different types of emails. Oshin suggests checking in three times a day, setting aside 30-60 minutes each, depending on the volume of emails. You should get the most pressing emails out of the way immediately when you have fresh eyes and the most energy, and set aside those less urgent ones for later in the day when you need a break.
Set Your Boundaries
Yes, some emails require immediate responses, but most can wait. (The Muse has a handy guide for lag time etiquette if you're ever unsure.) The problem is that the quicker you respond to emails, the higher the expectations become.
"Be sure to also think about the psychological messages you're sending along with your emails," suggest the folks at TrackTime24, an app designed to help you manage your tech time more efficiently. "Responding immediately trains people in a negative way and sets expectations that can be tough to maintain. Once you're known as someone who drops everything to reply to an email, delayed responses will begin to rub people the wrong way. But if you never set that expectation, taking your time to reply won't make waves."
Cognitive psychologist and improvement coach Amanda Crowell tested this theory herself, by waiting a day before replying to every email. Turns out the world didn't end, and she was able to discover which emailers required the most urgent responses and which ones were less likely to take offense. She was also able to send a clear message that she wasn't always available to everyone immediately. "We are holding ourselves in this prison of constant connection!" Crowell tells Quartz. "It's all about knowing what you really want, and then taking the small steps to get a little bit closer, and a little bit closer over time … that accumulation results in a different life."
Embrace Your "Inbox Infinity"
A few years ago, before the volume of emails in our collective inboxes grew out of hand, the idea of Inbox Zero—or a cleaned out inbox—seemed somewhat attainable. But the trend has gone in the other direction, and for good reason.
"The compulsion to empty our email inboxes is an addictive habit that makes us feel like we're making progress and getting things done, but in reality, we're wasting precious time that could be spent on our most important tasks," writes Oshin.
To remedy this addiction, The Atlantic's Taylor Lorenz came up with a new, more realistic approach to the email pile-up: acceptance, or what Lorenz calls Inbox Infinity. "One critical step in the inbox-infinity method is to publicly admit that you have too much email to handle and be up front about not responding," Lorenz writes. "You can start by messaging close contacts and family members, providing them with alternative ways to reach you."
You can also set an auto-reply that alerts emailers about when to realistically expect a response, and how to reach you if the matter is urgent.
"Since putting up my own out-of-office responder on my personal inbox and adopting inbox infinity, I've felt my stress about opening my mailbox decrease," writes Lorenz. "I've also found that setting the expectation that I may never see or reply to an email makes people even more grateful when they do get a response."
The most important thing to remember is that you are the master of your own inbox. We are all weighed down by the pressure to keep up, but if your unread messages are causing you major anxiety, it's time to relax, take a breath, and consider picking up the phone. Sometimes responding to someone the old-fashioned way is the healthiest move for everyone.