Does the mere sight of your inbox cause you to sweat? You’re not alone. In 2017, technology research firm The Radicati Group estimated 132 billion business emails are being sent per day!
Most people deal with some form of email overload. In fact, when we looked at the communication patterns of 50,000+ RescueTime users, we found that most people check their inbox or chat app every 6 minutes.
Yet despite being one of the most commonly used workplace tools, few people think about the impact of all that time spent on emails.
We’re not talking just about organizing your inbox. What we’re talking about is understanding and addressing the root causes of email stress during the day.
CODA: The real reasons why email is so stressful (and what that means for your productivity)
Email was the original productivity tool. However, today, it’s more associated with distraction than getting things done.
A study at UC Irvine even found that people who frequently checked email were more scattered and had an elevated heart rate, keeping them in a constant state of high-alert (which is linked to all sorts of health problems).
But why is that? Why should a tool so many of us depend on to do our work cause physical harm? It comes down to a few factors we like to think of simply as CODA— Context switching, Overwork, Distraction, and Anxiety.
Context Switching: Checking your inbox throughout the day kills your productivity
Every time you check your inbox, you’re doing what’s called context switching. And it’s killing your productivity.
Checking your inbox while doing another task can kill 20% of your productive time. In an 8-hour day, that means simply having your inbox open (which 84% of us do!) kills an hour and a half of your productive time for the day.
And that’s just from the switch itself.
Once interrupted, we rarely go back to the task at hand. Instead, researchers found we’re more likely to engage in an average of two or more intervening activities, with an average of 23 minutes before we go back to the original task.
Overwork: Spending 28% of your day on email means you take your “real work” home with you
The knock-on effect of email overload during the workday is that we work longer to make up for it.
For years, numerous studies have found that most people spend about 28% of their time each day on email. While newer studies show that collaborative tasks like email, chat, calls, and meetings take up 80% of most peoples’ days.
Unfortunately, few of us are judged on our ability to send emails and receive emails. Instead, we take our “real work” home with us to make up for all that time lost to email.
In a study of over 185 million hours of working time, we found that 40% of people use their computers after 10 PM with 26% of all work taking place outside of normal working hours.
Distraction: Your inbox is a minefield of distractions
If you’ve ever left your inbox alone for a few days (or even a few hours) you know the dread that comes from opening it. Instead of a neatly ordered to-do list or daily schedule, your inbox is a mess of attention-grabbing distractions.
Each message could be a quick response. Or, it could send you off on some unexpected tangent for half a day. Even worse, as you work through your inbox more keep streaming in and pulling at your attention.
There’s even a psychological explanation for this. According to the Zeigarnik Effect, we have a strong urge to finish what we start and when we don’t, it causes serious dissonance. Once you’re in your inbox, you’re stuck.
Anxiety: There’s FOMO from never knowing what an email might contain
You might think that you only check email when you get a notification. But the truth is that we’re just as likely to interrupt ourselves to “check in” as become distracted by an external source.
Your inbox creates an enormous amount of FOMO which is hard to ignore.
- You’re bad at keeping track of tasks so you constantly email coworkers, and “check-in” on projects.
- You’re scared of “missing out” so you get involved in every email and chat conversation.
- You want to look good in front of your boss so you feel compelled to constantly check your inbox and respond quickly to messages.
And because you’re always dealing with the unknown, just thinking about your ballooning inbox and everything it could contain causes even more stress.
7 ways to get through your inbox productively and with purpose
It’s pretty clear that there are more issues at play here than just too many emails. To reduce the stress that email overload brings into your life, you need to address each aspect of CODA.
That means having a plan for how and when to handle your emails, setting expectations around response time, and making sure you don’t go down a rabbit hole of distraction when you do check them.
Here are 7 steps you can take to take back control of your email time each day.
1. Reduce context switching by batching emails
First thing first, if your inbox is open in another window or app, close it.
Not only will this help you stay focused but limiting your email time to a specific time (and duration) can make you happier and more motivated.
In one study, 124 participants were monitored over a 2-week period. The first week they were only allowed to check their inbox three times a day. While the second week, they could check as much as they wanted.
At the end of the study, the participants expressed significantly less daily stress during the limited email week (as well as a diverse range of other positive outcomes from better sleep to higher perceived productivity).
So when should you check your inbox?
That’s up to you. But a good rule of thumb is twice a day. Once in the morning after you’ve completed a meaningful task. And once later in the afternoon to catch up, respond, and plan your next day.
2. Disconnect from email overload by removing your inbox from your phone
It’s impossible to disconnect from your inbox when it’s in your pocket. If at all possible, try to remove work email from your phone and only check in on your computer.
If this doesn’t work for you, there are still a few things you can do. First, turn off notifications. It’s the easiest way to take power away from your inbox and can be potentially a pretty high-value change.
Next, create some extra friction between you and your inbox. One way to do that is to use a lock screen wallpaper like this one from How to Break Up With Your Phone author, Catherine Price:
3. Get rid of inbox FOMO by setting clear expectations on response times
How long should it take to get a response to your email?
When we interviewed hundreds of workers about their communication habits we discovered that 75% of people have never spoken to a coworker or boss about their expectations for email response time.
When expectations go unspoken, it’s easy to fall victim to email FOMO. Instead, be specific with your coworkers about when they should expect a response. Create a daily ritual around checking your inbox. If it’s urgent, provide them with another way of getting in touch with you, whether that’s a text, call, or Slack message.
4. Slow your ballooning inbox by only touching each email once
How many times have you gotten an email only to leave it in your inbox, mark it as unread, or come back to it over and over?
Instead of procrastinating, make the most of your inbox time by committing to Paul English’s one-touch rule. For every email, scan it and then immediately either:
- Delete it. You can probably do this to more emails than you think. Plus, most modern email clients won’t actually delete but rather archive your messages if you really need to see them later.
- Do something about it. Take action right away. Better yet, try and complete that action in 2-minutes or less.
- Delegate it. Forward it to the right person with clear instructions of what you expect (not just an FYI).
- Defer. Worst case scenario, you’ll need to wait to take some action on it. In this case, try Gmail’s reminder tool to make these emails disappear until a later date.
5. Stay focused by using templates and canned responses
Most of us get emails that require the same or similar responses each day. You can drastically cut down your inbox time by creating and using canned responses and templates.
Need some ideas to get started? Check out this list of 10 canned responses.
6. Hit pause on the flood of your inbox by writing important emails before checking
Rather than opening your inbox and letting it take over your day, try composing emails outside of it as much as possible.
Here’s how Unmistakable Creative founder Srinivas Rao explains it:
“So often, people just jump into email out of default. They’re not deliberate decisions. So I will say ‘these are all the emails I need to send today’ and I’ll even write those emails before I go into my client. And that speeds up the time I spend in your inbox.”
7. Get real on how much time you’re actually spending on email
When we surveyed more than 500 RescueTime users, we found that the people who feel the most in control of how they spend their days spend less overall time on email and chat.
RescueTime gives you in-depth reports on how much time you’re spending on email. You can even set daily Goals and get Alerts when you go over.
Here are a couple reports I find especially insightful.
My Gmail total monthly time report gives me a snapshot of how much time I’ve spent on email, how much of my total time that took up, and what days were especially email-heavy.
Digging deeper, my Gmail by time of day report shows me when I’m most likely to use email. This way I can try to optimize my day so that I’m not answering emails during my most productive hours.
I even set a RescueTime Goal of spending less than 30 minutes on email every morning.
A little planning goes a long way in taming email overload
Unfortunately, most of us have never gotten this purposeful with our email time. Yet by taking a moment to understand just how much email disrupts your productivity, you can start to take back control of it.