3 Ways To Reduce Email-Related Suffering | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

3 Ways To Reduce Email-Related Suffering

When I speak to a group, I almost always get questions about e-mail.  “I just get so much e-mail at work and I don’t know what to do with it,” people say.  Worse yet, they’ve usually tried several e-mail organizing systems, and the overwhelm they’re feeling hasn’t gone away.

I think this is because a lot of suffering we experience around e-mail has nothing to do with how we organize it.  Instead, it stems from the ways we think about and react to our e-mail.  In this post, I’ll talk about three unresourceful ways of thinking about our e-mail we tend to get trapped in, and how we can let go of them.

1. Demanding Permanence. One reason we tend to suffer over e-mail is that we cling to the false hope that, some day, it will go away — the illusion that, at some point, our inboxes will stop filling up.  Our frustrated yearning for that magical day creates stress.

Productivity gurus often tell us we’ll feel less stressed about e-mail if we have a “zero e-mail inbox” policy.  That is, we’ll be at peace when we’ve sorted or deleted all the e-mails in our inbox.

Unfortunately, as you know, one inherent feature of e-mail is that people keep sending it to you.  Because e-mails are always arriving, you can’t maintain a zero e-mail inbox for long, and any relief you may get from an empty inbox will be short-lived.

I don’t mean to say the zero e-mail inbox strategy is useless.  It only becomes problematic when we rely on it to bring lasting satisfaction.  When we accept that part of the nature of e-mail is that it will keep arriving, we can let go of that frustrated yearning.

2. Seeing Yourself As Powerless. People often say they feel stressed practically every time a new e-mail shows up, even before they read it.  They often try to solve this problem by automatically routing e-mails from particular people, or on specific subjects, to folders they won’t look at immediately.  Unfortunately, they just end up worrying about what might be in the folders they aren’t looking at.

If you experience your e-mail this way, take a close look at what you’re thinking and feeling when a new e-mail arrives.  Many people notice they’re expecting the person e-mailing them to attack in some way:  to ridicule them, demand that they work faster, or something similar.  Not surprisingly, they tense up their bodies, bracing for the blow, each time a new e-mail shows up.

If they look even deeper, people often find that their anxiety stems from assumptions they’re making about who they are and what they’re capable of.  The problem isn’t just that they might be criticized or pushed around — the problem is that they don’t think they can effectively respond.  They see themselves as weak, powerless, or something along those lines.

A useful question to ask here is:  what if the e-mail that just arrived is abusive?  Can I set a firm boundary with the sender?  Can I tell them I don’t like being talked to that way?  That I’m not going to do the task they want just yet?

I find that, when people sincerely ask this question, they feel a sense of relief.  They remember that, no matter what comes at them in their e-mail, they’re capable of saying “no,” and protecting themselves against abuse.

3. Using E-Mail As A Distraction. It’s a sad but familiar story:  the evening rolls around, and people realize they’ve spent half the day in their Outlook.  One reason this happens is that people use e-mail to distract themselves from thoughts and feelings they’d rather not be having.

For instance, many people notice this pattern:  they do a few minutes of focused work on a project, boredom or frustration arises, and they run for the safety of their inbox to relieve the tension.  Because this cycle keeps repeating, it’s no wonder they find themselves at the end of the day with little to show for it.

If you find yourself having this experience, see if you can practice allowing the tension to be, exactly as it is.  Keep breathing, relax your body, and allow the tightness to pass away on its own.  Developing this ability, which my book covers extensively, helps you move forward in your work even in the face of discomfort.

A Few Announcements

Inner Productivity Intensive. I’m excited to announce that I’ll be offering my first full-day intensive on bringing Inner Productivity into your working life on June 12, 2010 in the San Francisco Bay Area.  I’m limiting this to 10 people to make sure everyone gets the breakthrough they’re looking for.  I hope you can join us.

Upcoming Teleconference. Also, there’s still room to register for the Conscious Work Check-In Teleconference, a free coaching experience where I work with people on bringing mindfulness practices into what they do for a living.  The call is on Thursday, April 8, at 6:00 pm PST.  You can register here.

16 thoughts on
3 Ways To Reduce Email-Related Suffering

  1. Evita

    Hi Chris

    Oh what a great topic! And very timely for me :)

    I am always looking for ways to optimize my inbox. New emails don’t create me stress or anything, but I also know there is quite a bit that comes in, that for the most part is junk and wastes my time. So even this morning I went out of my way to send a company a message to unsubscribe me from all their mailing lists (they actually had no unsubscribe button).

    And at the back of my mind there is this glimmer of hope that one day I will clear out my inbox and always be on top of fresh emails coming in – ha! I think I have learned enough to know that things just don’t work like that with email, at least not when a person’s work revolves around it :)

    Thanks for the great tips!

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  3. Davina

    Hi Chris. I usually have about 20 read messages in my inbox at a time. The rest I read and reply to, delete or file as necessary. I tend to keep my email open all the time and when I see a message in the inbox I deal with it immediately (if I’m not tied up with a huge project). It really only takes a few seconds to scan a message and decide if you can reply then and there, or save it for later. I get overwhelmed if there are more than a few unread messages sitting there.

    Ideally, I’d like to close my email and only open it a few times a day. However, that can potentially cause me to miss important time-sensitive messages. But, as you say, it IS a distraction too. I’ve used it that way when I’m not terribly busy, when I should be finding better uses of my time.

  4. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Evita — yes, I think a lot of us experience that hope that someday the inbox will completely clear up — just like someday we’ll have the perfect job or relationship. It sounds like it’s been liberating for you to let go of the need for that day to arrive.

  5. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Davina — that’s a good observation — that we can use checking, organizing or doing anything else with our e-mail as either a distraction or as a way to move forward in our work, and it’s the mindset we come to it with that makes the difference.

  6. Patricia

    I love my inbox of all of my email accounts! I put all the catalogs and newsletters in once account….all my work in another, and all my family & friends business in another. Facebook and twitter sum up the chatting needs.

    I rarely get overwhelming numbers of email and I am very free and efficient with my delete function. If I did not read the newsletter in 2 weeks time – out it goes.

    My partner of the other hand get overwhelmed at work with RIF’s Request for Information from contractors on building sites. He has to interpret if they are reading the drawings wrong or if they took an uncalled for short cut that is not allowed and makes a building unsafe….he is often on site all day, then answering e-mail late into the night or designing when the email box it empty. No one wants to do the Construction Architect’s job…but it makes a difference in safety and future use of building….on top of it he is a perfectionist…
    I think this is why be rides his bike so much – as a form of meditation and to cut the feelings of being overwhelmed.

  7. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Patricia — I’ve never heard anyone say they love their e-mail inbox before — that sounds like a wonderful place to be in! It sounds like your partner has a job that he finds demanding, but he enjoys the demanding aspect of it and has a healthy way to let off steam.

  8. Patricia

    I love the words and knowing that all those folks are taking time to share their ideas whether it is a newsletter or program or ad…..when it is so hard to get into the world for me…having it come to my inbox is a piece of cake with frosting!

  9. Patty - Why Not Start Now?

    That is pretty rare, what Patricia says about her email. Very interesting. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with it in the past. Love in the sense of, wow, who knows what wonderful thing might show up today? Hate in the sense of, yikes, it’s piling up. But very recently I have come to realize that much of my email comes to me by choice, because of things I’ve signed up for or information I think I want. And I feel very free now to delete those before I even read them. It’s like a breath of fresh air. I’m facing the fact that there is far too much information in the world for me to ever take in, and I probably have to set my information taking-in boundaries closer than others do. That’s why I choose to forgo Twitter and Facebook and the like. I just couldn’t handle it.

  10. Jannie Funster

    Hope y’all’s conferencing went great tonight. I bet it was fun and informative!

    I think my e-mail problem is I don’t check it near enough, (sometimes not for 2-3 days) so it builds up and I get an overwhelmed feeling . Plus hubby’s mails come into the same account. That’s in Outlook. Then… I have a Gmail account too. I should perhaps think about using the GMail only, but the thought of making the transition with all the people who have my addresses seems exhausting. Good thing I don’t have to decide on it tonight!! :)


  11. Michelle @ Find Your Balance

    A distraction, yes. Also I find that email can be a way to feel a sense of being ‘connected’ and ‘important’ when we otherwise do not, so it’s a blow to the ego to step away from the inbox! I have been trying to turn off my web browser entirely when I have to get work done.

  12. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Patty — that sounds like a liberating realization — seeing that the e-mails you receive are largely the result of your own choices, rather than other people forcing them on you. I get the sense that this would be helpful to a lot of people.

  13. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Jannie — I get that feeling occasionally as well when I decide to “go in retreat” for the weekend — when I look closely at it, I realize it’s a sense that I’ve “screwed up” in some way by not immediately responding to everyone — but recognizing that actually puts the whole thing in perspective, and sometimes I laugh about it.

  14. Mark

    Thanks for sharing good thoughts and advice on email. I get a multitude of email every day and I send out a multitude of email as well. My rule is simple, handle it once, respond when it comes in if you can and be done with it. I then place the email into an appropriate folder. Email does not stress me out.

  15. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Mark — I’m glad to hear e-mail isn’t a source of stress for you — it sounds like, when you’re done with an e-mail, you’re able to let go of any of the emotional charge that may have come up around it. That sounds like a valuable skill.

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