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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.