You get a lot of email. Probably more than you can handle.
And you are not alone. We live in a culture where email overload is accepted as a fact of professional life -- a post-apocalyptic dystopia of over-stuffed inboxes, vibrating cell phones and never-ending “pings" emanating from our computers and devices. The smartphone has made email more convenient, but also omnipresent and, at times, seemingly inescapable.
The average person who uses email for work sent and received a whopping 110 emails per day in 2012, according to The Radicati Group, a technology market research firm. And there is no end in sight: The Radicati Group estimates that the volume of business emails, which make up the majority of messages, is expected to rise at a rate of about 13 percent per year over the next few years.
This much is true: You can’t escape email. But you can tame it, and reduce your stress and boost your productivity while you’re at it.
"Being overwhelmed by email interferes with your brain's ability to think and hampers your creativity, as well as increasing stress," Joanne Cantor, Ph.D., a self-described "recovering cyber-addict," and the author of Conquer CyberOverload: Get More Done, Boost Your Creativity, and Reduce Stress, wrote in an email management memo she sent to The Huffington Post.
So, while you may be staring down a ridiculously overstuffed inbox, fear not! Here are five ways to make sure your email never overwhelms you again.
"You've got to be ruthless about what you want in your inbox," said Monica Seeley, Ph.D., who authored Brilliant Email: How to Win Back Time and Increase Your Productivity. "The first thing you have to ask is why do you have so much email."
Do you wake up to news of sales at Banana Republic, updates from the town council where you lived one summer, and daily deal offers for Botox? (We're looking at you, Living Social.) Do you really need to be cc'd on everything at work?
Spending some time unsubscribing now will save you considerable time and annoyance down the line.
"In order to de-stress, you have to do some work up front," said Mark Hurst, a consultant and the author of Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload.
And if you can't unsubscribe from certain non-essential listserves, set up filters so the messages skip your inbox and go straight to a designated folder.
Send Fewer Emails
When it comes to sending unnecessary emails, we’re our own worst enemies. We’ve all been guilty of emailing someone in the same room, or even the person sitting right next to us -- and it has to stop.
Before you hit “send,” ask yourself: Is email the best way to communicate what I have to say? Would it be easier, faster or more productive to pick up the phone or to send an instant message? Or could I even walk over to somebody’s desk or office and speak to them -- gasp! -- face to face?
Fortunately, there are tools out there that can help. Campfire, a group chat program with file sharing, and Yammer, which bills itself as "the enterprise social network," allow for collaboration and communication without clogging your inbox.
Whether you opt for an actual program or just a change of your own email habits, what’s important is that you do something. As Seeley notes, "The more you send, the more you're going to receive."
Empty your inbox!
Get emails out of your inbox as quickly as possible, said Hurst.
"The most common reason for overload," Hurst argues in Bit Literacy, "is that people often use the inbox for purposes it wasn't designed for ... the inbox is appropriate only as a temporary holding place for emails, briefly before they're deleted or moved elsewhere."
Hurst's solution is to get every message to the right place as quickly as possible: Reply to emails that take less than two minutes to answer, file or archive what needs to be filed, put action items on a to-do list and put calendar items on your calendar.
"Put everything where it belongs," Hurst said. "Once that's done, your inbox is empty."
Email overload isn’t just annoying and counterproductive -- it can actually be bad for your health.
The sound of the new email ping from your phone or computer can actually raise your heart rate and blood pressure, Cantor said. But that's not all -- being interrupted by the new email takes our attention away from the task at hand: the work we're actually doing. It takes time to get focused again after checking your inbox, Cantor said, extending the time it takes to actually get stuff done.
Some companies have even experimented with ways to free their employees from email. PBD Worldwide, a third-party distribution company, has "email-free Fridays,” and in general, employees are encouraged to check their email no more than once every 30 minutes.
So for the sake of your health, try, try, try not to check your email as often. You probably won't miss much. A survey last year from Mimecast, a company that builds email management software, found that only 39 percent of business email is "essential" or "of critical importance" for work.
Own Your Inbox (Don't Let It Own You)
There are a number of email productivity apps -- Mailbox, Boxer and Sanebox -- that promise to help people organize their inboxes. But Hurst said that more than apps and tools, successful email management requires a change in our relationship with technology -- specifically, being disciplined and taking responsibility for our own habits.
"You -- the user -- are in control," Hurst said. "The human is the most important part of the system -- not the latest tool, not the latest feature. And as long as people abdicate that responsibility [of email management] to the technology, they will remain stressed and overloaded and anxious."
How do you make sure email doesn't control your life? Leave a comment, or send us an email (yes, we understand the irony here) at firstname.lastname@example.org.