What To Do When Email Is Sucking Away Your Soul

It drains your time, energy, and psychological well-being--but only if you let it. Here's how to tame the beast that is email.

You spend about 28% of your time answering the 70 or so emails you get a day, Jennifer Senior reports for New York, and what's worse is the psychological effects: According to the research of email management startup SaneBox, we need 67 seconds to recover from every message.

"E-mails, after all, are disruptive," Senior observes. "It takes start-up energy to read them; it takes energy to reorient and reboot once we’re returned to the task we’ve left. Over the course of a week, the price can be measured in hours."

And yet we can't get enough of them, being that we are easily stimulated moths drawn to a constantly updating flame. Thus, as Senior continues, "reading words onscreen is almost always easier and more alluring than a task requiring deeper analysis," your inbox becomes the dysfunctional relationship that you just can't quit, a cut at the roof of your mouth that you just keep tonguing--since it's easier to drown yourself in emails than to compose and complete the specific, high-priority tasks will actually move your life forward.

So like any terminal disease, we aren't going to be able to "cure" ourselves of email--but we sure as hell can better cope with the symptoms.

This will come in three flavors for now: addressing the productivity drain, looking at how it's a company culture thing, and learning how to cope with email's enervating psychological effects.


The productivity perils of an open inbox

Gentry Underwood and his cofounder left sweet gigs at Ideo and Apple after they realized people used email as a terrible to-do list. This insight led to Orchestra, the company (and app) built around the idea that you could send tasks to other folks within the app, with the hope that this would allow people to be freed from their inboxes.

But they just made another inbox. So they pivoted and set out to change the inbox itself, resulting in the mega-popular Orchestra]Mailbox app--and an acquisition by Dropbox.

The lesson here is that we're not going to be able to get rid of email unless everybody in the world does. It's entrenched. Instead, we can cope with it--Mailbox and other email apps make it smoother, and there are all sorts of strategies for cleaning up your inbox. Alternatively, you could not give a shit about inbox zero, which may also be liberating.


Culture, culture, culture

At Brain Pickings the other day Maria Popova shared some management wisdom from David Ogilvy, the ad man's ad man--and, more than one person has told us, a fine hero to have if you want to do quality work in the business world, given that he wrote prolifically.

As Popova posits, one of his rules for creative management applies to our present email problems:

Crusade against paper warfare. Encourage your people to air their disagreements face-to-face.

This shows us a few things: first, that over-messaging has been with us for decades; second, that it's a cultural thing; third, that we need to have cultures that encourage constructive criticism.

But what does that look like? If we trust Brené Brown, the beloved sociologist and author, we'd have to say that it looks like one where any festering shame culture has been ferreted out. In other words, it's no wonder if people act passive--relying on electronic missives--if they're going to be chastised for voicing their opinions.


Un-training the energy drain

Spending hours a week recovering from emails sounds like a terrible way to live. So what to do about it?

One idea is to batch your email--make it a scheduled thing that you take care of at set hours, for only so much time. Studies in optimal work--flow, you might call it--show that tasks need to have clear boundaries in order to be satisfying. So if you set a timer for 15 or 20 minutes for your inbox and then pledge to close it after, it can turn the slogging chore into something more like a sprint.

But this, again, is a culture question: That kind of behavior won't be cool on a team where constant contact (and distraction) is the norm. Leadership needs to model it. So if you're a leader, you can. Otherwise, you can start a necessary, liberating conversation about how the team could be doing better work--with a few minimal adjustments to missives.

Hat tip: New York magazine

[Rushing Water: Ammit Jack via Shutterstock]