• Have we become slaves to our inboxes? And what can be done about it?

  • Jocelyn K. Glei has written a book all about it – here is her 7-step plan to reduce email anxiety

Our email addiction is out of control. The average person checks their inbox 11 times per hour, processes 122 messages a day, and spends 28 percent of their total workweek managing their inbox. What’s more, research has also shown that the more frequently we check email, the more stressed we are.

Here are a few tips and tricks on how to kill email anxiety so that you can spend more time on meaningful work:

Step 1: Timebox your email routine

There are two types of emailers: reactors, who rely on notifications and near-constant monitoring of their inboxes to nibble away at their email throughout the day, and batchers, who set aside specific chunks of time to power through their email so they can ignore it the rest of the day. Not surprisingly, batchers are significantly more effective when it comes to getting things done, and according to recent research, they’re also less stressed. To get yourself into the groove of batching, I recommend setting aside two to three blocks of 30–60 minutes per day for checking email.

Step 2: Protect against the inbox influx

If you find yourself getting distracted by incoming messages every time you open your email to deal with existing messages, try using Outlook’s Work Offline feature or download the Inbox Pause browser extension for Gmail. I also recommend trying out the free app EasilyDo Email, which has a killer one-touch unsubscribe feature for opting out of promotional mailing lists without ever leaving your inbox.

Step 3: Reduce FOMO by using VIP notifications

If you’d like to stick to specific blocks of time for checking email but you have a special someone who will freak out if you don’t tend to their email within five minutes of receiving it, compromise by using VIP notifications. On an iPhone, you can designate certain people as VIPs, so whenever you get an email from them you get a special push notification. The Gmail app and Android phones have similar options for designating priority senders. Then you’re freed up to ignore your email without worrying you’ll miss something crucial.

Step 4: Quarantine your email on a separate screen

The clearer your workspace (read: computer screen) is, the easier it is to focus on the task at hand—and return to it after an interruption. With regard to email, this means that the tax on your attention is lower if you keep it constantly running on a separate, glance-able screen nearby (or on your phone or tablet if a second monitor isn't an option) rather than on your primary computer screen.

Step 5: Decrease urgency with quick expectation-setting replies

Sometimes you’re well aware that your sender feels her message is urgent, but you have more important things to do. In this scenario, the best approach is to respond immediately with a short message that lets her know when you will be able to answer her message in full. People crave context. If you merely help them understand where their email sits within your workload, they can be surprisingly understanding. What’s more, expectation-setting emails can help you relax by allowing you to re-assert control over your schedule and release any feeling of obligation about meeting someone else’s timetable.

Step 6: Try assuming people expect you to say “No”

Rather than assuming the sender of every email expects you to say yes - and resenting the unwanted obligation - experiment with assuming that they think it’s a long shot. Reframing the situation like this makes it easier to put seemingly pushy emails in perspective so that you can consider the opportunity with a relaxed attitude. Once you level the playing field between the possibility of saying yes and the possibility of saying no, it becomes easier to gracefully decline inquiries that don’t align with your priorities.

Step 7: Let go of inbox zero

Remember: Your unread message count is not an audit of your productivity. (Zero, quite literally, means nothing.) Although it can be satisfying in the short term, attaining inbox zero is cold comfort in the long term. If you want to make time to accomplish meaningful work, you have to let go of the notion of an empty inbox. If you can accept that it’s just not going to happen, you’ve taken the first step toward removing yourself from the productivity rat race. In the grand scheme of things email is just one small part of doing great work.

Jocelyn K. Glei is the author of Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done

Further reading

What is burnout?

How does email therapy work?

Why we need to build boundaries in our lives