We live in an era of information abundance, and achieving inbox zero seems like the stuff of urban legend. Even if you keep your smartphone tucked away to the side, you can see all the notifications out of the corner of your eye. And if you’re like most professionals, it gives you serious anxiety. Email anxiety might sound like a fictional illness dreamed up by the writers of The Office, but it’s a real and potentially dangerous thing that threatens your mental health and your productivity.
Occupational therapist Angela Lockwood spoke with The Sydney Morning Herald about email anxiety. “It’s a primitive, physiological response,” she said. “A lot of people easily get hundreds of emails a day. They get anxious, thinking, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to cope’.”
So, how exactly do we cope with the never-ending stream of communication in our inboxes? There’s a few approaches you can take.
Don’t check it right away
It’s only natural—you want to answer every message as it’s received. But if you operate this way, you’ll go mad. Treat your email the same way you treat all other work tasks. Schedule time on your daily calendar to clean your inbox, and close your email when you’re working on other things. You’ll be amazed at how relaxed you feel during the day and how quickly you can power through responses when you’ve planned for it.
Be concise yet informative
We waste a lot of time on emails—verbose communication with too much detail, poorly worded emails that require a lot of clarification, etc. Keep your communication short and sweet. Respect your time and the recipient’s. But don’t omit vital information. Do your best to deliver the most powerful message with the least amount of words and in the clearest way. This way, you’ll eliminate a lot of the back and forth.
Delete, delete, delete
Not every email is worth opening and reading, so avoid the urge to go through each one. Scan your inbox and delete the messages you know aren’t essential. While you’re at it, unsubscribe from every list that serves no purpose in your life. If you never open those emails, save yourself the trouble and eliminate them altogether.
If you’re getting a lot of communication, keeping it all in your inbox, with no organization system, can be just as overwhelming as a ton of unread messages. Create folders for your emails. For example, make one folder for short-term items and another for long-term items. But be sure to answer the urgent messages as soon as possible. Whatever system you choose, just be sure you have one.
You have the opportunity to flag emails as “important”. But if you flag too many, your inbox will be filled with tons of “mission critical” items. The problem is, very little of those emails are mission critical. For the vast majority, nothing will happen if you wait until the afternoon or even tomorrow to respond. Prioritize your responses in order of importance and realize that not every message is an emergency.
If you approach your inbox with a level head and a plan of attack, you can seriously reduce the amount of email anxiety you experience each day.