For many, email is an essential part of how they communicate in their work and personal lives. One often relies on email so much that constantly refreshing one’s inbox all hours of the day (and night) can quickly become a hard habit to break, and the pressure to reply to emails as soon as possible is incessant. In her 2016 book, Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done author Jocelyn K. Glei describes email as a moving target that never truly reaches completion, which can trigger what is called inbox anxiety and even an obsessive mindset. “While you attend to it, 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,” she explains in her book.
So how does one conquer or simply keep up with said moving target and keep their sanity in tact? According to productivity and mental health experts, some practical steps to take include a mix of organizational hacks to help streamline the email managing process, as well as strategies for setting boundaries and getting in the right headspace when diving into your inbox. Ahead, their tips on how to take back control of your mind and email.
Set & Stick To Hours Of Availability
"If we are constantly answering emails, no matter the time, we are setting an expectation," says Tanya Dalton, a productivity expert and author of The Joy of Missing Out. "Without meaning to, we are communicating to others that we are always available." For this reason, she recommends setting strict hours of availability for yourself and sticking to them. Furthermore, she also suggests communicating these times in your email footer or as an autoresponder to let everyone know.
Take Deep Breaths
Before you even dive into your inbox each day, Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and professor of neural science and psychology at the Center for Neural Science at New York University, recommends practicing a simple breath pattern.
Here's how: Breathe in slowly for four counts. Hold for four counts. Exhale fully for four counts, and lastly, hold at the bottom for four counts. Suzuki explains that this simple breath pattern works because it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system designed to put you in a relaxed state, making you more prepared to tackle emails.
Stand Up & Move
In addition to deep breathing, taking breaks to stand up and move can also be helpful. "Moving your body is one of the most powerful ways to immediately decrease your anxiety levels because you give your brain what I like to call a neurochemical bubble bath of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline that work to both decrease uncomfortable emotions like anxiety and increase positive mood state like energy," Suzuki says. So whenever you feel the inbox anxiety coming up, get up and take a short walk, stretch a bit, or dance around — whatever feels good.
Set Email Check-In Times
Obsessively checking your email all day long doesn't help with inbox anxiety. If anything, it makes it worse. Dalton explains that the constant refreshing keeps our cortisol (aka the stress hormone) levels elevated, which can impair our decision-making and rational thought. To remedy this, her advice is to block off three or four 10- to 15- minute email check-ins throughout the day and only check and respond to emails within those windows.
Celebrate Your Successes
Managing your inbox is a never-ending task. So, to keep your motivation high and anxiety low, Suzuki advises celebrating the little wins along the way. Even if you just made little progress towards inbox zero, for instance, or deleted a bunch of emails, pat yourself on the back for that. "This not only works to improve your mood, but can help build [stress] resilience," Suzuki says.
Classify Emails Based On Category
According to Dalton, categorizing your emails based on what you need to do with each is a big key to staying on top of your inbox. She says that having a system in place eliminates a lot of thinking, saving you precious time. The categories she recommends creating within your inbox include:
- Delete: junk mail, ads, spam, etc.
- Designate: emails you may need to reference later
- Delegate: emails that require action from someone else
- Do: emails that require a quick response from you
- Defer: emails that require a more thought-out response from you
Turn Off All Notifications
Everyone is bombarded by notifications these days, which makes it challenging to be present, and in the case of emails, it allows your inbox to control you versus the other way around. Dalton suggests turning off email notifications from your phone and desktop to take your power back and be more intentional about your email routine. This way, instead of being prompted to check your email all day, you decide when it's a good time to review and respond.
Practice Empathy For Yourself & Others
Lastly, Suzuki emphasizes the importance of giving yourself grace when you don't get through as much of your inbox as you hoped. "Practicing this form of personal empathy can lead to one of the most under-appreciated gifts of anxiety: empathy for others," she says. For instance, understanding how easy it is to miss an email and reply late will help you be more empathetic and gracious towards someone who does the same.