Web Worker Zen: 5 Ways to Manage Email Stress


News of a recent study has been making the rounds, showing that email is the top cause of stress in most workers’ lives, and that people are increasingly addicted to checking email constantly, two facts that are not surprising to many web workers.

Email is a constant demand on our attention, a constant burden on our minds, and a constant task that must be completed, over and over again, or else.

And yet, it is possible to get the stress of email down to a manageable level without declaring email bankruptcy.

While we’ve covered some great ways to reduce stress before, let’s look specifically at a few different ways to manage email stress, so that you can keep your calm in the middle of the chaos.

This isn’t a step-by-step guide, but some ideas you can choose from.

1. Don’t respond. There are some emails you need to respond to, that are important, and then there are the vast majority that really don’t need a response. As harsh as this may sound, consider deleting the majority of your emails. Jokes and chain mail from friends and family, cc’d emails and emails that just contain FYI info, invitations you’ll probably never get to, emails that say thank you, unsolicited offers, emails without a clear request … the list of emails that never need a response can go on and on. It takes a little while to be able to make quick decisions on which need response, but it’s a useful skill. Instead, delete most, and mark a few for response when you have time.

2. Wean from frequent checking. Perhaps the biggest cause of email stress is the need to check every few minutes (and yes, many people do this). The truth is, although we feel that need, it’s not really a need. It’s an urge. And it’s a learned response that can be unlearned. Just wean yourself slowly. Turn off your email notifier, and double the time in between email checking — if you check every 5 minutes now, try every 10 instead. Then every 20, and so on, until you get to your desired level. Very, very few people need to check more than once an hour, and most of us don’t even need that level of frequency. Once you’ve weaned yourself from constant checking, you’ve made huge strides towards a less stressful life.

3. Process once or twice a day. If you can do the step above, you can most likely do this step too. It may seem insane to only process email once a day, but try this experiment: on a Saturday or Sunday, try not checking your email at all, not even in the morning, until you go to bed. If you already do this, then try it on a weekday. It will seem difficult, as you will feel the urge to check email throughout the day, but tell yourself that the world will not fall apart if you don’t check your email. And in truth, it won’t. Life goes on, and sure, you will have a lot of emails to process at bedtime, but you will have learned that you can make it through the day without checking email.

Then, try doing that every day. Set a time (or a couple of times) for checking email, and don’t let yourself do it at any other times. Say 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., or right before bed. Avoid doing it first thing. Once you’ve gotten used to this schedule, you’ll begin to lose the need to check email often, and thus the stress that comes with that need.

4. Process to empty. Whether you choose to process email once an hour or once a day, try to get your inbox to empty (read some tips on that here and here). Leaving your inbox clear will reduce your stress that comes with thinking about the emails sitting in your inbox. Leaving emails in an inbox is a common tactic, of course, because either people don’t want to deal with each email quickly, or they want to leave a reminder of a task that needs to be done. Instead, learn to dispose of each email in seconds, and to put task reminders on a separate to-do list, so your inbox can be clear.

5. Keep responses short. Instead of trying to type detailed responses for dozens of emails, try to keep them to within a sentence or two, and definitely no longer than five sentences. Giving yourself a limit like this will force you to get to the point, to write clearly and concisely, and to keep your email processing times to a minimum. And knowing that you can crank through your inbox in a short time keeps the stress of a bulging inbox also to a minimum.


Mark D

I have to agree with Leo and AlmostGotIt. It is like the saying, ~”The phone is there for your convenience, not the caller’s.”~ (Dale Carnegie, I think). As I remember it, this statement was in the context of not interrupting meetings to take a phone call. The same is really true for e-mail. E-mail is not an instantaneous form of communication though many treat it that way. If your CEO or most valuable client were standing in your office/cube, you would not tell him, “hold that thought while I take this call.” That’s why Ma-Bell invented VoiceMail. Likewise, you should not have to interrupt an important project or even an important e-mail response or call just to respond to another.

If someone is changing a meeting on short notice, it is their responsibility to make sure everyone knows, not the recipients’’. And it is their problem to pass on information to people who could not make it. There was a department I worked with at one company that had a sign posted that applies here, “lack of planning on your part does not constitute and emergency on our part.” Covey’s principle of First Things First tells us its the important things that pay off. Even things that others think are Urgent are not always important.


But Peter, I *do* only answer my phone once or twice a day. I’ve actually got a message on it now that briefly explains that, as I work at home, I am not always available to take phone calls but will gladly return any messages at the end of the day (and yes, I judiciously give out my cell phone to those family members and clients who really must have access to me in between)

Re email: I learned this brilliant tip for emptying as I go… each email is either read and discarded; read, replied to and discarded; or read and forwarded to myself to keep it near the top of my email queu so it reminds me to take the action it requires.

Leo Babauta

@Peter: It may seem absurd, but it’s never hurt me, or others I know who do it. In most cases, if there is something that urgent, people will call, especially if you tell everyone you know that you will only check email at certain times — then they’ll know to call if there’s something urgent.

But as it says in the article, choose the tip that works for you. Everyone’s situation is different. If that tip doesn’t work for you, choose another.


Number 3 is absurd. If everyone did this it would take days to get answers to simple questions. No one would suggest only answering your phone once or twice a day. The first time you miss a meeting that was changed to 9 AM from 10 AM because you only check email at Noon and the change came after that, you’ll realize how absurd an idea this is.


The BEST thing I did for myself was cut off my email notifier … and when I’m really involved in a project I shut Outlook down completely to prevent myself from “peeking”. Stress Reduction down 45% !!! Love this website, stumbled on it by accident – work in a cube, but your posts are very helpful! I’m even trying to push the IT department for double monitors — but he keeps laughing at me :D

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