Researchers agree: Email increases our stress and tanks our productivity1–3.
Would you like to learn how to better manage email stress?
Over the past few years research has found more and more evidence that one email management method can be truly effective.
But first, let’s look at what’s wrong with the way we handle emails.
The number one email mistake
You wake up, you check your email. You’re bored, you check your email. You’re anxiously waiting to hear back from back from an employer, you check your email every 30 seconds. Everyone does it. We check our inbox all the time.
But when people check their email constantly, they experience more stress and feel more overwhelmed3,4.
Importantly, email checking involves a lot of switching from work to email and from email to work. Every time you do that, your brain finds it harder and harder to focus on important tasks5.
One study found that it takes about 64 seconds to recover from an email interruption6. That’s up to 102 minutes—more than one hour and forty minutes—wasted every day.
That’s why constant email checking will ruin your productivity7,8.
The most productive way to manage email and reduce stress
If you want to handle email more productively, the solution is to consistently practice email batching.
Email batching means checking your email only during predefined times. For instance, you can decide to read your emails only at 1 p.m., 3 p.m., and 6 p.m.
There are three main benefits to email batching:
- Efficient email handling. When you have dedicated times for checking your inbox, you can process emails much more efficiently. Also, research shows that batching makes people less likely to send angry emails—even when they’re stressed9.
- Improved focus and productivity. With email batching you don’t constantly switch between important work and your inbox. As a result, your brain can focus better and your productivity increases.
- Less stress. You’ll stop worrying about having to deal with emails as soon as they come in. That’s why email batching reduces stress and improves sleep quality10. However, keep in mind that email batching doesn’t work very well for people that score high on neuroticism9.
Five easy steps to manage email productively
Email batching is an extremely easy and powerful way to be more productive and reduce stress. You can start practicing it right away by following these five easy steps:
- Decide on how many times a day you want to check your inbox. One study found that two to four times a day may be optimal11. Another review of the research recommends every 45 minutes if you want to be very responsive without sacrificing focus12. At the end of the day it all depends on your job and life situation. I personally think three times a day works for most people.
- Choose specific times to check your email. For instance, 10 a.m., 2 p.m., and 5 p.m. For optimal productivity you might want to deal with important emails late in the morning, when your brain is very alert. I do not recommend checking your email early in the morning.
- Add your email times to your schedule and/or to-do list. This really helps you develop email-checking discipline. You’re much more likely to commit to email batching if you schedule it.
- Use reminders. Email batching might feel weird at first, but like all great habits it comes with time and consistency. The best way to do that is to use reminders at first (on your to-do list or calendar) to help you stick to your email batching routine.
- Make email hard to access during non-email time. Checking your email can be very tempting. To make temptation more challenging, you can block your email app on your phone during certain times. Also make sure to have your email browser tab open only when necessary and turn off your email notifications unless absolutely required8.
What if people expect me to answer right away?
Sometimes you may feel like people want you to respond to their email immediately. But according to research, email senders don’t necessarily require an answer as quickly as you may think12. We overestimate how fast people want a reply.
Wanting to answer emails quickly is normal: it makes us feel competent and responsive13.
But most email senders are relatively reasonable people. They do not expect you to be available all the time.
If they do, ask yourself this important question: what is more important to me, responding quickly or reducing my levels of stress and anxiety? Do I want to manage my email strategically or do I want to be a slave to my inbox?
If your mental health and wellbeing are important to you, you might want to negotiate email expectations with your colleagues, employers, and clients. If you make the case that it makes you more productive, they will very likely accede to your request.
But there’s a more important reason why you should not focus on being available instantly…
Are you ready to become more reliable?
Have you ever sent an email to someone but never heard back from that person? I’m not talking about people who simply turned down an offer by not answering. I’m talking about colleagues or managers who were supposed to give you an answer but never did.
It happens all the time. Do you feel like you can count on those people? Probably not.
Why do some people fail to answer emails reliably? Because they’ve reached their limit.
Research shows we can only handle so many emails14. Past a certain point, we just ignore, delete, or forget to answer incoming messages.
How does that happen? When people check their inbox constantly, they reply fast. But by replying fast, they receive even more emails, more frequently. As they receive more emails, they’re less and less able to answer them all. As a result, many emails go unanswered15. That’s how people become unreliable.
Here’s the irony: we think that being constantly available will make us more productive and competent. But in reality the opposite happens. Being available makes you less reliable. It is catastrophically counterproductive.
You can practice email batching or check your email all the time. But only one of these methods will make you reliable, productive, and stress-free. In the long run, it’s much easier and effective to be reliable than to be available.
Research Cited (click to expand)
- 1.Blank, C. et al. Emotional Footprints of Email Interruptions. in Proceedings of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (ACM, 2020). doi:10.1145/3313831.3376282.
- 2.Becker, W. J., Belkin, L. Y., Conroy, S. A. & Tuskey, S. Killing Me Softly: Organizational E-mail Monitoring Expectations’ Impact on Employee and Significant Other Well-Being. Journal of Management 014920631989065 (2019) doi:10.1177/0149206319890655.
- 3.Addas, S. & Pinsonneault, A. E-Mail Interruptions and Individual Performance: Is There a Silver Lining? MISQ 381–405 (2018) doi:10.25300/misq/2018/13157.
- 4.Barley, S. R., Meyerson, D. E. & Grodal, S. E-mail as a Source and Symbol of Stress. Organization Science 887–906 (2011) doi:10.1287/orsc.1100.0573.
- 5.Leroy, S. Why is it so hard to do my work? The challenge of attention residue when switching between work tasks. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 168–181 (2009) doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2009.04.002.
- 6.Jackson, T., Dawson, R. & Wilson, D. Reducing the effect of email interruptions on employees. International Journal of Information Management 55–65 (2003) doi:10.1016/s0268-4012(02)00068-3.
- 7.Renaud, K., Ramsay, J. & Hair, M. ‘You’ve Got E-Mail!’ … Shall I Deal With It Now? Electronic Mail From the Recipient’s Perspective. International Journal of Human–Computer Interaction 313–332 (2006) doi:10.1207/s15327590ijhc2103_3.
- 8.Mark, G. et al. Email Duration, Batching and Self-interruption. in Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (ACM, 2016). doi:10.1145/2858036.2858262.
- 9.Akbar, F. et al. Email Makes You Sweat. in Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – CHI ’19 (ACM Press, 2019). doi:10.1145/3290605.3300898.
- 10.Kushlev, K. & Dunn, E. W. Checking email less frequently reduces stress. Computers in Human Behavior 220–228 (2015) doi:10.1016/j.chb.2014.11.005.
- 11.Gupta, A., Sharda, R. & Greve, R. A. You’ve got email! Does it really matter to process emails now or later? Inf Syst Front 637–653 (2010) doi:10.1007/s10796-010-9242-4.
- 12.Russell, E. Strategies for effectively managing email at work. ACAS 1–102 https://archive.acas.org.uk/media/4926/Strategies-for-Effectively-Managing-Email-at-Work/pdf/Strategies-for-effectively-managing-email-at-work.pdf (2017).
- 13.Sonnentag, S., Reinecke, L., Mata, J. & Vorderer, P. Feeling interrupted-Being responsive: How online messages relate to affect at work. J Organ Behav 369–383 (2017) doi:10.1002/job.2239.
- 14.Stich, J.-F., Tarafdar, M., Stacey, P. & Cooper, C. L. E-mail load, workload stress and desired e-mail load: a cybernetic approach. Info Technology & People 430–452 (2019) doi:10.1108/itp-10-2017-0321.
- 15.Kooti, F., Aiello, L. M., Grbovic, M., Lerman, K. & Mantrach, A. Evolution of Conversations in the Age of Email Overload. in Proceedings of the 24th International Conference on World Wide Web – WWW ’15 (ACM Press, 2015). doi:10.1145/2736277.2741130.