How to let go of email anxiety and be more productive

Do you ever feel like your email is running your life?

Ladders spoke with Jocelyn K. Glei, the author of Unsubscribe, about why email causes anxiety and how we can rethink our approach to it to be less stressed and more productive.

Ladders: What don’t we understand about email?

Glei: Email is still people’s number one distraction at work, but we’ve become so inured to it that we don’t think about it in a productive way.

We are all still hanging on to this idea of “inbox zero.” Right after Merlin Mann coined the phrase in 2007, the first iPhone was launched. All of a sudden, email could follow us everywhere. Today, “inbox zero” isn’t relevant to volume of email we receive.

We live in a world where anyone who has access to the Internet has access to you. We can all Google someone, find their email address, and show up in their inbox uninvited to ask them to do something.

We have to shift the way we think about email and let go of the idea of “inbox zero.” If we want to do work that’s actually meaningful to us, we have to say “no” to some opportunities so we can say “yes” to our priorities.

Why are we so addicted to email?

Email is like a slot machine. Most of the time when you pull the lever, it’s a request from your boss asking or a message from an angry client. But every once in a while, you pull the lever, and it’s something great: an email from a long-lost friend or an invitation to speak at a conference.

Those random rewards mixed in with all the junk makes you want to keep checking you email again and again because it activates a primal seeking mechanism in your brain. This is also true of services such as Slack, Twitter, text messages, and Instagram.

You have to be really clear about your goals so that you’re not sucked into this black hole of busy work.

One thing I do is sit down every three months and identify the two or three goals that are really going to help me move the needle in my career. Even small acts like making your to-do list the night before can make it easier to resist those random rewards or prioritize them.

Can services like Slack replace email?

I don’t think Slack is an alternative to email. Slack is meant for real-time communication and collaboration. It’s excellent for that specific purpose, whereas email is intended for more asynchronous communication.

What happens is that we get confused about when we should use which tool. For example, we send people emails and expect them to respond immediately.

We need a higher level of consciousness to choose which communication mode is appropriate to the type of message we want to communicate. It’s takes a lot of effort.

Why does email make us anxious?

Daniel Goldman, who created the concept of emotional intelligence, found that there’s an innate negativity bias to how people react to email. In between the writing and receiving, the email gets downgraded a positivity notch.

For example, if I feel good about sending an email, you’ll feel neutral when you receive it. If I feel neutral when I send it, you’ll feel negative. And if I feel negative when I send it, you’re probably going to feel distressed.

The social feedback loop is missing. Tone of voice, facial expressions, and hand gestures shade how you process what someone is saying. In the absence of that, we tend to assume the worst.

Negativity bias is a powerful concept in emphasizing why emails can make us so upset. It also shows why it’s important to put in effort when you’re crafting emails to make sure they will be received in the emotional register that you intend them.

There’s also a cultural concept of askers versus guessers. If you’re in an ask culture, you’re taught to ask for something with the understanding that the other person can say “no.” If you’re in a guess culture, you’re trained to only ask for something if you think it’s very likely they’ll say yes.

When askers confront guessers, they run into problems. If a guesser gets an email from an asker, they guesser assumes they’re expected to say yes. This conflict causes a lot of anxiety.

For me, understanding that concept made feel that I had more freedom to make a judgment for myself. Now I feel more empowered about only saying “yes” to the requests that align with what I want to accomplish.

What can we do to reduce email anxiety?

One of the problems of emails is that it’s a black box. You don’t know how the other person is reacting.

When you receive an email, you tend to either do the request, which can make you feel anxious because it’s interrupting other things you have to do, or put it off, which can make you feel anxious because you know the other person wants a reply.

Rather than doing either of those things, make a habit of letting the other person know that you got their email and it’s on your radar. These expectation-setting replies let people know where their request fits within your schedule.

This way, they can stop feeling anxious about whether they’re going to get a reply, and you can reassert control over your schedule.

You can also shift to a batch-processing approach. Rather than reacting in a notification-driven way, where you’re constantly multi-tasking, set aside a few times a day to focus 100% on your email and attempt to ignore it the rest of the time.

Research has shown that the more frequently you check your email, the more stressed you feel. People who process their email in batches are more productive, less stressed, and happier.