Home Communication How to Manage Your Inbox and Email Anxiety

How to Manage Your Inbox and Email Anxiety

by Emily Horn

I don’t know about you, but for me, email anxiety is real. It’s definitely a “thing.” Used to be that if I saw my unread email number rising, my heart rate would also rise. In fact, for a while there (I won’t admit how long), it felt like my life was revolving around my inbox. It was a running joke with my fomer boss. He would walk in and ask, “What’s your unread number at?” I’d respond, and he’d laugh and say, “Wow. Mine’s at 23,458!” And then he’d enjoy the genuine look of horror on my face.

How much time have I spent trying to manage my inbox? How many lunch hours, nights, weekends, car rides, and more have I spent clutching my phone, responding to messages as quickly as possible in order to prevent a pile-up? Well, Harvard Business Review lays out exactly how much time we waste on various email tasks each and every day. And, my friends, it’s a lot.

For those of you who experience email anxiety, I will share that I have completely changed how I relate to and approach email – for the better. And here are a few things that helped me create a healthier, less stressful relationship with my inbox. If this is something you struggle with, hopefully, they will help you, too.

1. Set email hours.

No really. Do it! Set specific times during the day to check and respond to your emails, and then go live your life outside of those times. Yes, everyone believes their problem, idea, request, etc. is a priority, and perhaps it is, but that doesn’t mean we must stay glued to email, responding within minutes to each person who reaches out. Check your email in 15-minute increments, and have a start and stop time each day. Stick to it! For me, this was really hard at first, but it is possible. If you’re a teacher, lay this out for parents and gaurdians at back to school. If you’re a leader, tell your staff within which hours they can expect you to respond to emails, and encourage them to set times of their own. Emailing at all hours of the day and night sends teams an indirect message that leaders expect them to do the same. Voicing your boundaries gives staff freedom to create their own, and it’s a win for all involved.

2. Normalize responding within one business day.

Responding in a timely manner to emails is very important. It shows you value the sender and are professional and reliable. But, even if there is a sense of urgency, most messages do not require an immediate response. Let’s join together in education and normalize getting back to people within one business day. Many times, I remember checking my inbox and seeing an initial email, and then, just an hour or two later, a follow-up email! That’s ok. Everyone has a lot on their plate, and responding to emails is one of the many tasks at hand. However, a response is still considered “timely” as long as its recieved within one business day. Shout it from the rooftops. Tell your school community. Remind your staff. We aren’t required to respond to emails immediately; we will respond to emails within one business day.

3. Use filters and labels.

Did you know you can create email filters so that certain messages are automatically moved from your inbox into other folders? Here are two quick videos to show you how to keep your inbox clean by creating filters and labels in Gmail and Outlook.

Creating Filters and Labels in Gmail
Creating Filters in Outlook

4. Turn off email notifications.

You heard me right. Turn those notifications off! If you have set times to check and respond to your emails during the day, you don’t need those pesky notifications piling up and reminding you of all the lovely messages you have in store. When I would see that tiny white number in that little red circle on top of the email icon getting higher and higher, I couldn’t resist checking my inbox. Which would lead to responding to emails. Which would lead to being glued to my phone until I’d responded to everything I could respond to. Which would lead to people expecting me to respond immediately. Turn them off and be free.

5. Use the 5 Ds.

I absolutely love the 5 Ds. Using these five rules can really help overcome email overwhelm. Each time you open up your inbox, you can look at messages through the lense of the 5 Ds and take the appropriate action. Here they are in a nutshell:

  • Discard: These are emails that don’t require a response and can be immediately delete.
  • Defer: If an email can wait, leave it unread and come back to it later.
  • Document: This refers to emails you’ll need to keep for future reference. Move them to a separate folder.
  • Delegate: Maybe the email doesn’t require an action or response from you. Delegate it to the correct person.
  • Do: These emails can be taken care of and responded to by you right away.

6. Should the reply be an email?

Sometimes, it’s better to respond to an email in person, especially if it’s a more sensitive matter. It’s not always clear the tone of a written message, so if you have any hesitations about putting someting in writing, how a message might be recieved, or whether or not the true meaning or intent of your message is clear, it would probably be better to make a quick phone call, schedule a short face-to-face meeting, or stop by an office or classroom for a verbal reply.

Ready to tackle that inbox? If you have other suggestions or tips that have helped you manage your inbox and email overwhelm, please share them with us in the comments.

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Jennifer Bergland January 16, 2023 - 10:49 pm

Great suggestions! But remember, if you are using Gmail, you can archive emails and use Google search operators to find an email so it’s okay to keep emails indefinitely! 😬

Emily Horn January 17, 2023 - 10:30 am

Jennifer Bergland! Great to see your name on here. This comment is 100% true! I use that search bar constantly, but I just can’t stand to have thousands of emails that I don’t need sitting in my inbox or other folders. So, I delete and unsubscribe. It’s just a “thing” for me! 😉

Miguel Guhlin January 18, 2023 - 3:31 pm

I love Jennifer’s suggestion. Although I follow Inbox Zero protocols, I often rely on labels to keep my data safe. But some times, you have mail clogging your All Mail that’s NOT tagged, stuff you don’t want to read and filtered out. You can nuke all that,but if you do mass select with the checkbox, you might sweep up some tagged emails by accident.

I found this tip handy for dealing with those:

1. First search for every message that HAS a label (has:userlabels)
2. Assign them a “KEEP” label (or whatever you might want to use)
3. Search for has:nouserlabels
4. That will reveal all unlabelled emails that you may want to delete.
5. Delete your “KEEP” label.

The benefit? You get rid of all unlabelled “KEEP” emails. That really can save you some storage space in Google Drive.

Give it a shot! I got this tip from RaisedByTurtles at https://raisedbyturtles.org/view-unlabeled-gmail#method4

Emily Horn January 18, 2023 - 3:49 pm

Great tip, Miguel! *runs to my Gmail right now to try it out*

Randa February 20, 2023 - 10:53 am

wonderful tip, it was very helpful.

leticia mena February 20, 2023 - 1:38 pm

great tip it was helpful

Lorrie Haley-Ford February 20, 2023 - 1:48 pm

Routine and structure (Using he 5 D’s ) will definately eliminate my overcrowed email anxiety .

Mary Pena February 21, 2023 - 10:29 am

video was informativ


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