We all like the idea of a nice tidy inbox. Email nirvana, we imagine, lies in a series of carefully categorised messages, all of which are read and replied to in a timely manner.
But few people actually reach that ideal. Why? In an era of near-constant communication, it sets an impossible standard.
“People get really stressed by the idea of unread emails,” says Sivan Kaspi, head of marketing at Spike, a conversational email tool that aims to transform the way we communicate at work.
“Our initial market research showed that our core audience – which includes freelancers and small business owners – receive more emails per day than they can ever hope to reply to, even with all the time in the world.”
This disconnect sets the stage for a lurking sense of guilt. With the dawn of 24/7 communication technology, available at any time in any place, more of us than ever before are suffering an “email hangover”.
“We define it as a kind of low-level, gnawing sense of unease that people get from not responding to their emails,” says Sivan. “It’s quite an anxious feeling, and it’s far more common than you think.
“Rather than dwelling on that growing pile of messages and notifications, instead you can choose to reclaim control in how you handle them,” she adds. “Email is central to how we connect with one another, but that doesn’t mean it has to take up precious headspace. If you think of your emails as tasks, it’s all about prioritising what tasks matter to you most.”
Here’s how to do exactly that:
Is it urgent?
“The compulsion many clients report is to reply to email as quickly as possible,” says Karen Meager, founder of career coaching consultancy Monkey Puzzle Training. “This can be out of a sense of duty, wanting to get back to people or help or it can be a wish to clear the email out of their inbox – a bit like clearing your intray in the old-fashioned world of work.
“We tend to find that people are just not good at working out which priority to attach to email,” she adds. “They tend to approach them in a ‘first-come, first-served’ fashion.”
Sivan agrees that prioritisation is essential. “Arrange your inbox so you see your most important messages first – low-priority emails should be automatically moved out of your main view,” she says.
“That way, you can work on your priority first and get to the less urgent stuff later. It’s also a good idea to pin messages to the top of your inbox. Personally, I like to pin my most important conversations, or things I want to remain at the top of my consciousness – topics I want to be reminded of, so they’re right in front of my face.”
Once you’ve worked out what messages are urgent, you can go a step further and decide which don’t need to be replied to at all.
“It’s important to remember that many emails will get sorted without your response,” says Karen. “If it’s really urgent people can call, or even come and speak to you in person.”
Even if you do reply to non-urgent messages, you shouldn’t feel under pressure to do so.
“Email inherently respects your time,” says Sivan. “Since it’s asynchronous, each side can reply when they’re able to, without the stress of needing to answer immediately.”
“The purpose of sending an email is so that the other person can respond in their own time,” Karen adds. “In general, most people consider a reply to an email within 24 hours pretty quick. If it requires thinking time it could be up to a week. Be consistent: if people know you usually get back to them in a few days, they will account for this.”
Is it joyful?
There’s no need for email to feel like the slog many of us see it as.
“Research shows that if you create moments of joy in your day, you’re far more likely to feel energetic, with a greater sense of purpose,” explains Sivan. “This applies to email as much as anything. It should be fun and spontaneous to use.”
Consider which emails bring you joy and which ones drain you. Of course, there will be times where you have no choice in replying either way. But there may be threads you are looped in on that you never read – feel free to call this out, and asked to be taken off.
As Karen says, “The key to overcoming your guilt is to find a way to be clear with people about what to expect; just like in any other form of communication really.”
The same approach goes for filtering out newsletters you don’t open, or calling time on long discussions that are going nowhere.
“Are you getting cc’d into things you don’t need to?” says Corinne Mills, managing director of Personal Career Management. “Ask to be taken off some of those distribution lists. It’s also worth picking up the phone now and again. It can save time if an exchange is going on forever.”
By focusing on what sparks joy, and filtering out messages that sap you of energy, you’re more likely to avoid a co-dependent dynamic.
According to Hilda Burke, psychotherapist, couples counsellor and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook, being co-dependent means “putting other peoples’ needs ahead of our own, or worse, even denying that we have needs of our own”.
“I work with many clients who have a constant drip feed of requests coming their way via email, messenger or social media on their device, many endowed with a false sense of urgency,” she says. “They feel unable to lay boundaries down with the result that they feel compelled to check their emails and messages last thing at night and first thing in the morning.
“One client, whose boss is based several continents away, even added in a middle-of-the-night check ‘to keep on top of things’. At the root of this wasn’t so much concern for the work per se but my client’s need to be liked, valued, appreciated, and, crucially, depended upon.”
Clearly, this kind of mindset is the very opposite of joyful. But it’s also very easy to fall into – especially for freelancers, whose clients are the bread and butter of their business.
Does it help progress my work?
Apart from anything, notifications have the power to clog up your work schedule: a pressure that increases tenfold when you feel under obligation to reply to everything.
“Email is a compilation of your tasks, so everything you do there should be structured and seamless,” says Sivan. “Instead of draining time, it should be a tool that helps you tackle your workload more efficiently. If it’s not doing that, you need to rethink how you’re using it.”
With each email that comes your way, think about whether responding will actually help take your work forward in any meaningful way. Are you replying because you have something specific to communicate? Or are you simply doing so to buy time, or out of a dogged sense of duty?
“Guilt is very corrosive and can be misplaced,” says therapist coach Carolyn Mumby. “Having lots of ‘shoulds’ in our mind is usually never helpful. Try taking a step back and be realistic about what can be achieved in the time you have.
“We can slide into taking on more and more – when actually signalling that we have too much on our plate, and deciding what we will let go of, would be more productive.”
Making this definition will help ease the guilt when you put certain messages on the backburner. It’s also worth bearing in mind that how you reply to email sets a standard for your working habits – and this can make all the difference between efficacy and simply treading water.
“Sometimes it’s also good to deliberately hold back from responding to an email quickly, particularly if the person is known to be demanding and/or could find the answer elsewhere,” says Karen.
“You train people how to treat you all the time, and if you always respond very quickly, people will just come to you more and more for things they should be able to figure out for themselves. People who respond quickly always receive more emails.”
Hilda says that her client who scheduled in a middle-of-the-night email check was eventually a lot more productive when she trained herself not to respond immediately.
“We worked on how she would communicate to her boss that she was going to be adopting a new working style, where she would no longer be checking email between certain hours and not at all over the weekend,” Hilda says.
“Over time she related how surprised she was that she was actually getting through more rather than less work. Previously, she’d surf the internet or chat with friends on WhatsApp to distract herself from tasks she didn’t want to do, knowing that, ultimately, she could make up the time later, working on her phone, on the train, or on the couch while half-watching TV with her partner.
“However, when she knew her day would end at 5.30pm, she focused more on the task at hand. This not only freed up time for herself later, but gave her a sense of accomplishment and completion.”
It’s this satisfaction of completion that eludes us when we try to be present at all times for all people. Much better, then, to pick and choose how you handle your messages to break free from inbox tyranny.
“We spend so much time at work, we may as well enjoy it along the way,” says Sivan. “It’s OK not to reply to everyone immediately. Save your energy for the messages that count. It’s not a race.”
With that, we’re off to check our inbox – in a mindful and selective way, of course.