It's probably one of the first things you do when you wake up and among your last orders of business each night: Check your email. And at this point, even the sound of your email notifications might be enough to set your teeth on edge.
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More than two-thirds of remote workers say they'd rather commute to work if it meant receiving fewer emails and notifications, according to an April 2021 survey by Superhuman and market research firm Wakefield Research.
The survey also found that 63 percent of workers say they're more likely to send an immediate reply to an email from their boss or co-worker than to a text or direct message from family or friends.
Translation: Email is a constant presence in our lives, and it's stressing us out.
We may not be able to get rid of it entirely, but there are a few things you can do to help remove the stress around email. Here's how:
1. Set a Schedule
Decreasing the number of times you check your email each day is really important, says Marsha Brown, PhD, a licensed psychologist with a focus on stress and mental health management. She predicts that most people check their inboxes around 20 to 30 times a day, but she recommends bringing this number down closer to three times a day.
"Three is an arbitrary number, but you just have to start somewhere and limit the number of times you check your email," says Brown, "Stopping to check your email constantly really cuts down on your productivity."
Instead, schedule specific times during the day when you'll read and respond to emails, like 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., for example. If your job requires you to check your email more often, you could schedule more times during the day, but the key is to decrease the amount overall and focus on non-email tasks in between those check-in times.
2. Limit Notifications
If you feel tempted to check your email as soon as you receive messages, you can schedule your notifications to appear only at times you choose. This approach is called "batching."
Apps like Boomerang allow you to receive emails in batches. Boomerang is compatible with Gmail and Outlook.
Brown encourages people to take it one step further and turn off all notifications, if they're comfortable doing so. "If we're putting into place boundaries in terms of email checking, then you wouldn't need notifications," she says.
This might not work for everyone, though, notes Kostadin Kushlev, PhD, a psychology professor at Georgetown University. In a December 2019 study in Computers in Human Behavior, Kushlev and colleagues found that turning off all notifications caused many people to experience FOMO — fear of missing out — and higher levels of anxiety.
If that's the case for you, Kushlev recommends using "Do Not Disturb" to your advantage. "Do Not Disturb has become a lot smarter," he says, "You can turn on 'Do Not Disturb' for a particular period of time. There's [also] an option to turn it on while you're in a particular location."
For example, if you travel to a nearby coffee shop to get some work done, you can turn on your "Do Not Disturb" setting for that location, Kushlev says.
3. Avoid Checking Emails During Non-Work Hours
"Don't check your email first thing when you wake up in the morning," Brown says. "That basically sets you on a path for the entire day of just being stressed out and trying to put out fires."
Brown suggests giving yourself at least 30 minutes, or even an hour if you can, before checking your emails in the morning. She believes that everyone needs time to decompress before dealing with work issues.
This also applies to checking your inbox before bed. "At the end of the day, when you're ready to go to bed, you want your mind to be winding down, getting ready for sleep. But if you're checking emails, your mind goes into problem-solving mode," Brown says.
With your mind focused on work, it can be very hard to pay attention to other things like sleep or family time. Indeed, seeing a notification from a boss or co-worker can distract you from time shared with family and friends, Kushlev says.
4. Identify the Source of Your Stress
By determining where the source of stress is coming from as you send and receive emails, you can reach some kind of resolution, says Brown.
To identify what is stressing you out, she suggests noticing little changes in behavior. Here are certain telltale signs to look out for, according to Brown:
- Biting your fingernails
- Playing with your hair
- Being fidgety
- Feeling nauseous
- Dry mouth
If emailing specific people or sending certain types of emails causes you to experience any of these telltale signs, then there may be something about those situations that is stressing you out, says Brown.
Once the source becomes clear to you, she recommends finding a resolution, like having a conversation with someone on your team, or finding time to disconnect.
5. Step Away From Your Computer
"Make sure that several times a day you are getting away from your computer," says Brown, "Take five minutes to get out and just do something else and focus on something else."
Brown has a technique she calls The Five-Minute Reset. In order to manage the stress that work can cause, she recommends taking at least five minutes to step out of your work zone when you start feeling overwhelmed.
A few activities she suggests during a five-minute reset are:
- Deep-breathing exercises
- Making yourself a cup of tea or decaf coffee
- Distracting yourself with coloring apps or quick phone games like logic puzzles
- Listening to relaxing music or a positive mood playlist with your favorite songs
6. Don't Respond When Anxious or Angry
If anger or anxiety crop up when you're responding to emails, "you might end up saying something you may not mean or something that may not be in your best interest," Brown says, which can potentially lead to more stress and anxiety.
It's best to wait an hour or two, then check in with how you're feeling. If you're still not feeling calm, Brown says to wait until the next day to send a response.
Another suggestion from Brown: If you're really nervous about typing out emails perfectly or can't seem to find the right words, ask for a phone call instead.
7. Unsubscribe From Email Lists
"We all have had the experience where you give your email address to one company or organization and all of sudden you're subscribed to a bunch of different lists," Brown says. "That can be really overwhelming because it clogs up your email. It also steals your focus from the things you should be concentrating on."
If unsubscribing from mailing lists manually is too time-consuming, there are different apps that will do it for you. Clean Email is an app that sends unsubscribe requests on your behalf. If a mailing list does not honor the request, the app will block them for you. It is compatible with web browsers and Apple and Android devices, and it works for all platforms, including Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, Outlook and Office 365.
Gmail Unsubscribe is a free plugin that can be added to your Google Chrome browser that automatically unsubscribes from mailing lists. After unsubscribing, it compiles a Google Sheet document that lists what was unsubscribed, just in case anything needs to be reversed.