Email Anxiety and the Fear of the Unknown

Can you turn off email for a week and not worry. How are you at coping with inbox anxiety?

Well I’ve struggled with this day-to-day, and particularly around holiday times.

Stressing about email causes me a few issues –

  1. It can mean I’m not always fully present with the kids or out and about
  2. It can stop me being able to focus as a constant distraction
  3. It helps me ‘feel’ busy even if I’m just firefighting and dealing with quick wins

There must be a better way. And recently I’ve been more mindful of email in general. Is it possible for me to tame email, rather than letting it lead me and pull me off track.

Your time, energy and focus is precious. These are things that you can’t get back, and given time is scarce, it’s critical to put it towards the right things.

You won’t hear many people on their deathbed wishing they’d spent more time in their inbox!

So, with that in mind, how can we overcome email anxiety and make this manageable day-to-day. The true test is to be able to turn off your email for weeks at a time, but we need to walk before we can run…

I’m approaching this from the perspective of a dad and business owner –

  • Family time trumps email time
  • 99% of things aren’t so urgent that they can’t wait a day or two
  • Build a healthy relationship with your inbox

If you’re an employee of a company, then many of the lessons will also apply too… and if you’re not able to properly switch off out of hours then I’d strongly consider finding a job where you can!

Mindful Email

As with many lessons and thinking in my thirties, with email anxiety, I’ve found that a touch of mindfulness goes a long way.

  • It’s all in your head
    The pangs of dread and anxiety with a hectic inbox and busy life as MD of a small business comes in waves. But I’ve found it useful to just pause, think about what’s the worst-case scenario, and (if away from my desk) write it down in a structured task list to deal with later.
  • Mindfully review
    When you do get a chance to next check your inbox, don’t do it sequentially – skim down to catch any big issues first. Chances are there won’t even be any, then you can reaffirm to yourself that you were worrying about nothing.
  • Set boundaries
    Keep your email app away from your phone home screen and be sure to avoid email on your phone as much as possible.  Keep it to your work laptop or work hours, and (if needed) give clients a way to reach you away from email if there’s anything urgent.

Really the thing that’s helped a lot is that quick pause – I had it just recently coming back from a week off on holiday. I was clear in my mind that this was family time and therefore needed fiercely protecting.

Coming back, the inbox creaked open, with 300+ emails.

Email Wins

Clearly, you want to be dealing with email in an efficient way each day, and it’s possible to use some good systems and hacks to minimise it’s disruptive forces…

Here’s what I’ve found works for me –

  • Inbox Zero
    A simple idea – essentially you want to clear down your inbox every day to zero unread / un-dealt-with emails. I use a simplified Getting Things Done approach here – quickly response to anything that only takes a few minutes, schedule other messages to reply to, and forward anything else to a dedicated Trello Board with all my tasks and priorities to work through.
  • Be militant with email newsletters you sign up to
    Subscribe slowly, unsubscribe quickly. Cut out the noise, and be super selective with what you sign up to.
  • Filter out the noise
    I currently use Gmail and have numerous filters so that only important messages reach my inbox. That’s mailing lists I find interesting, clients messages, enquiries etc. You can immediately cut out all the social media notification emails and just time-block times each day to keep on top of the various networks.
  • Personal inboxes
    I’m always very slow to check and respond to personal emails. It helps set the tone, people get used to not expect a fast reply, and they would have my WhatsApp details for faster responses (even then I often take a few days if it’s not urgent!)
  • Hide your inbox
    I find opening my inbox to a list of unread emails immediately derails my flow, even if I’m just trying to refer back to a message that I need for the project at hand. I use an extension called InboxWhenReady for Gmail to hide my inbox by default, so I can still search without getting overly distracted. Another way to achieve this in Outlook could be to set the frequency that emails are checked to every 1hr, or 2hrs rather than push notifications.
  • Turn off (essentially) ALL notifications
    I just keep calls, calendar events, emergency/VIP messages. And in intense focus sessions I hide my phone / smartwatch out of the way.
  • Use scheduling
    Send and reply to emails on your schedule, when it’s convenient to you. Schedule emails to send at strategic times so that you can pick up replies at times to suite you!

So that’s some day-to-day habits and techniques that may help tame your inbox and get more control. I find that the control helps avoid a lot of the worry and anxiety from not having too many loose ends.

Ultimate Email Mastery

Coming back to the ultimate goal – being free from email dread – I think the only real way to achieve this is to build an awesome team around you.

But that’s a medium/long term process, so the steps I found helped are –

  • Start by setting an out-of-office / autoresponder if you need to focus
  • You can set expectations as to your availability and when you’ll respond
  • If needed, add a (work) mobile number so people can get you in an emergency

For a holiday, I typically add a not to my email footer two weeks out to say I’ll be away. It’s all about setting expectations.

Then if you say you’ll be offline stay offline!
… don’t muddy the waters by replying. Stay away. Your team or colleagues will soon reach out if there’s anything truly urgent.

I’m wondering how much of this might apply to teenagers and helping to overcome anxiety with social media in general. Maybe a topic to write about in a future blog post!

Be selfish, look after yourself and your time first, and ultimately you’ll end up getting better results at work if you’re happier and have more energy too.

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