Email Stress

Apr 12, 2023 | Neurodivergence, Mindfulness

Email has become a primary portal for work- not just in our professional space but in all of the labors of life from logistics, scheduling and bureaucracy, government and finance, social engagement and organization, current events and social literacy, personal correspondence and connection, and just so, so much commerce and consumerism. When we read our email we deal with stressors from all corners of life but for all the time we spent growing up hearing our parents complain about junk mail and bills we’ve only exacerbated the problem through cheap, instant transmission and on-demand access not just from our bosses but from international fast fashion retailors, mystical penis enhancers and desperate singles in our area.

In an effort to offer support and find relief I’ve collected a handful of resources and would like to summarize my findings. Most people seem to experience particular stress in a few of a handful of specific challenges which I’ve attempted to categorize and address below. See which ones resonate with you as concerns, consider which strategies might be worth investigating, implementing and integrating into your habits and explore the resources at the bottom to work to address your stressors and nurture your stress.

Unrealistic expectations-

A major challenge for many with in-box overload comes from our own resistance or what Albert Ellis called shoulding all over yourself. Because of the stress, irrationality and outright absurdity of email a little indignation seems more then fair and yet, when we tell ourselves ‘this should only take a few minutes a day’ or ‘this shouldn’t be so hard’ we deny ourselves the resources and energy necessary to complete a task that may not actually be reasonable to complete in a short amount of time.

  • If you’re struggling with email stress and/or deadlines, consider whether you are giving yourself an adequate amount of time, space and mental energy to address the immensity of the task.

  • Notice when you create unrealistic expectations for yourself like ‘I should have already finished this’ or ‘this shouldn’t take so long.’

Unclear expectations-

Another source of email stress comes from the relative expectations of a hugely diverse group of correspondents. Your boss may expect a professional response within 48 hours, the office assistant a polite or playful rejoinder before end of business, your clients a warm and inviting missive within 72 hours or your bank a technical reply before the end of the month. It’s hard to gauge people’s standards for both response time and professionalism through text and the constant shifts of tone and timeline can lead to nebulous fears of shame and failure.

  • Consider what YOU think is an appropriate response time and professional tone for any number of email categories causing you stress and compare your answers with both the resources below and the advice and culture of the people you correspond with.

  • Remember that despite their apparent confidence or trend setting status, none of the people you email with are any more ‘correct’ about the ‘right’ way to email then you are, we are all building this new culture together. Connect with your common humanity and recall that this isn’t hard ‘because you’re bad at it,’ it’s hard because it’s new and weird and tricky and awkward for all of us- and that’s not your fault!

Unmanageable workloads-

The emails start coming and they don’t stop coming, fed to the rules you have to hit the ground running, or whatever Shrek said. Buy one obscure 10 year LED lightbulb from an online retailor, express any amount of sympathy for a charity or social cause or try to save 10% at the register and you can expect a lifetime of ongoing mailers, listservs and advertisements. A lot of our sense of overwhelm comes from the unending deluge of garbage inextricably mixed in with the actual correspondence.

  • Consider which emails you can live without. Are there routine messages you habitually overlook or mailers you feel particularly emotional or ashamed about ignoring?

  • Spending a day going through an unsubscribing, blocking or deleting can feel insurmountable (see also; this shouldn’t take so much of my time!) but a Saturday spent in front of cheesy TV with a laptop and an unforgiving digital bouncer may save you hours of stress and avoidance in the future.

  • Investigate your email provider or some other third party tool for culling bad emails or blocking/unsubscribing from more using the resources below.

Unrelenting access-

With great technological power comes the opportunity/obligation (responsibility?) to instantly communicate with 24 time zones and some 5 billion people from our own toilet. When we can catch up with clients in line at the coffee shop or anxiously reply to our boss in the middle of the movie we invite not only the stress of that moment but also the nebulous and unrelenting fear that anytime, anywhere we may be called upon to set aside our presence in the moment to address the arbitrary needs of a small metal box in our hands.

  • Spend some time noticing when, where and how often you feel obligated to check your email. Take note of any strong emotions, especially guilt, shame, anger, dread or panic.

  • Consider reasonable boundaries around when, where or how often you should be expected to engage with email.

  • Brutally revise your notifications, app downloads and general willingness to be available at a moment’s notice.

Unending executive task switching-

Perhaps the greatest challenge email presents us with is the rapid-fire globally-diverse micro-transaction nature of the technology. Some emails require thoughtful, detailed responses. Some are about concert tickets in states we’ve never been to. Some make us feel like our very livelihood might be threatened while others offer insight into how to make the perfect crumble coffee cake. Many are read, reread and referenced in long un-ending chains, many more are briefly scanned or deleted sight unseen. The inevitable switching back and forth requires a level of executive functioning and mental labor that our ‘multi-tasking’ society fails to adequately value and account for.

  • Factor in the emotional labor and cognitive cost of switching horses and constantly transitioning gears when you consider the amount of energy and time needed to address your inbox.

  • Consider setting up multiple accounts to partition off the many forms or types of email you experience

Unorganized chaos-

Much of what makes email so overwhelming is the randomness of finding important bills mixed in with junk mailers, silly jokes or important letters. By using organizational strategies to categorize, triage and cull our inbox we no longer have to face the mind numbing inexactitude of 78 unanswered ‘notifications’ and can instead develop a clear strategy for how to proceed. Organizational systems like ‘inbox-zero’ and correspondence tools like Boomerang can help us to know what needs to be done and when.

  • Investigate paid apps and services like Boomerang to help remind you and stay on track of correspondence.

  • Consider exploring organizational strategies like inbox zero or setting up your own folders to sort and prioritize your email work.

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