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.


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