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This is why you feel you’re never free from your inbox

Here are the right (and wrong) ways to overcome email overload.

This is why you feel you’re never free from your inbox
[Image: Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images]

Ding! You’ve got mail—again, and again, and again.

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If you’re a knowledge worker, you’re tied to your computer for getting your work done. For better or worse, that means that your email is ever-present, tempting you in the background.

Although email has become an important and ubiquitous communication medium, it has also become an increasingly problematic source of burnout. This phenomenon, called email overload, entails an ongoing inability to effectively respond to the volume of email messages that one receives, and it’s a bigger problem than you might suspect. Research suggests that individuals who struggle with email overload are not only experiencing higher levels of stress, but are incredibly inefficient.

There are strategies galore for fixing the email overload problem. But do they work?

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Email overload strategies

Many of the strategies entail leveraging untapped settings within the email program itself. These settings can be as simple as turning off notifications or as strategic as using timed or delayed responses to reduce back-and-forth exchanges.

Other strategies focus on one’s approach to triaging email, such as immediately marking emails for deletion, quickly responding to anything that takes less than one minute, and saving and scheduling all others for deep thinking time. Relatedly, only engaging in email triage at certain times of the day, such as first thing in the morning, mid-day, and then again before shutting down for the day, can also facilitate more focused work.

A third strategy entails communication patterns. For example, some use office hours for questions that necessitate more context than email can provide. Another strategy is to cut-off long email chains by implementing a 15-minute meeting to resolve the issue immediately. Another communication approach entails using auto-responders to preempt non-essential communique, creating auto-filters for regularly occurring emails, or even enlisting the help of an assistant to help with triage.

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Why email overload happens over and over

All of these strategies have value. However, they still aren’t enough. This is because the problem isn’t tactical; it’s psychological. We might put several of the tactics into motion, but we eventually give in.

There are several reasons why this happens. First, when we are not immediate responders, this makes us uncomfortable. We’re worried about what our peers, managers, and clients will think about us if we don’t answer right away. We’re also constantly looking over our shoulders, wondering if there is someone else who is willing to do more than us.

Second, we don’t actually want to do the deep work. We claim that if only we didn’t get so much email we would finally have the bandwidth to do the non-urgent, high-impact work that needs to be done. But when we sit down to do this deep work – it’s daunting, it’s hard, and it doesn’t feel as productive as seeing inbox zero.

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Lastly, sometimes we’re just not self-disciplined. We haven’t yet turned the strategies into a habit. The problem is that unless you don’t fully embrace the why behind the habit, it will never stick.

Techniques to cope with mental pressure

Take care of yourself first

Organizations are, by definition, interdependent systems involving diverse contributors. And when we’re hired, it’s expected that much of our efforts will be working with and through others. But just because others rely upon us doesn’t mean we can’t set boundaries and give ourselves time to offer high-quality insights or pursue individual, long-term contributions.

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Anyone that’s been on an airplane has heard the warning – put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others with theirs. The same philosophy should apply at work. You can’t make massive contributions—contributions that serve your colleagues and your organization at large—unless you take care of yourself first.

Manage the paradox

It is also important that we reframe the conversation of email overload in terms of “both/and” not “either/or.” You can still be an engaged employee without constantly being on email. You can still be a good teammate without answering every email within 2 hours.

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To create this both/and thinking entails proactively managing the paradox. As offered in Smith and Lewis’ book, “Both/And Thinking: Embracing Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems,” there are two approaches to consider.

The first is creative integration. The goal here is to think through the merits of both sides—always being on email and never being on email—and come up with solutions that tap into the benefits of both while minimizing the negative impact.

The second is consistent inconsistency. This entails being comfortable with the messy middle-ground, making progress, one step at a time towards the end goal, even though there will be challenges along the way as we attempt to address our own needs and the needs of others.

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Looking back on its history, email can be and is an amazing tool that has revolutionized the speed at which information is shared. But more isn’t always better. To ensure you’re maximizing your contributions for both you and your organization, strategies and tactics are a start, but changing your mindset is the real key to success.


Scott Dust, Ph.D., is a management professor at the University of Cincinnati, and the chief research officer at Cloverleaf, a technology platform facilitating coaching for everyone.

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