If the ping of an incoming email disrupts your workflow and ultimately your workday, or if you’ve laid awake worrying about your teeming inbox, you’re not alone. According to one analysis from a market research firm, we send and receive more than 347 billion business and consumer emails per day by 2023.
Email is a fact of work life. Unfortunately, the stress of managing overflowing inboxes and the strain of frequent interruptions take a big toll on workers’ health and productivity. The problem may not be the tool but how we use it, says Cal Newport, author of “A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in a World of Communication Overload.”
If you’re ready to think outside the inbox and use email a little differently, read on for our strategies to combat email overload.
Is email too much of a good thing?
Our reliance on email as a primary communication tool at work has not only boosted stress and health worries, it has also curbed productivity. Email’s ability to hijack our attention from the task at hand and channel it to another seemingly more urgent task adds to our cognitive load. The greater the cognitive load brought on by task switching throughout the day, the poorer we perform at tasks that require thought. Let’s dig into the research.
Studies on the effects of email have examined how workers manage the constant flow of messages they receive. Employees at one British company reported being interrupted by email every five minutes. Perhaps more startling? They typically responded within six seconds.
All that back-and-forth communication throughout the workday can take a serious toll. In 2019, researchers in Sweden tapped into a long-term study of work-life issues, focusing on workers whose jobs demanded high use of Information Technology Communication (ITC). They measured ITC demands of 4,400 workers over two years, then followed up with workers after four years. The workers with the highest ITC demands reported “suboptimal health.” The researchers accounted for socioeconomic position, job status, and other factors that might influence outcomes, and found that men were more likely than women to report a connection between the demands of ITC and perceptions of their health.
In the same vein, other research points to a connection between frequent email checking and increased stress. In a 2015 study at the University of British Columbia, researchers set out to experimentally examine how the frequent interruptions and task switching due to email impact workers’ wellbeing. The researchers studied two groups of participants who had either limited or unlimited access to their email. The results showed that people who limited their email access to three check-ins a day experienced significantly less stress than those with unlimited access to their email.
Researchers at UC Irvine found reducing participants’ use of email decreased stress and increased focus. Heart rate monitors were attached to computer users in an office setting, while software sensors detected how often the users switched windows. People with email changed screens twice as often and worked in a state of steady “high alert” with more constant higher heart rates. Those removed from email for five days experienced more natural, variable heart rates.
“We found that when you remove email from workers’ lives, they multitask less and experience less stress,” said informatics professor Gloria Mark, co-author of the study.
On the upside, the UC Irvine study found that people who were more deliberate about when they dealt with their email (for example, batching or clustering email use) reported higher productivity at the end of the day compared to those who check email when triggered by notifications. The researchers concluded that organizations should make a concerted effort to cut down email traffic, raise employee awareness of the potential impacts of email on their productivity and health, and explore the use of other communication modes to cut the volume of emails.
Now that we’ve explored the consequences of email dependency, let’s think outside the inbox to relieve employee stress and boost productivity.
How to stem email overflow
While big change, such as a new company-wide email policy, can require big, long-term initiatives, here are several shorter-term ways — largely inspired by Newport’s take on communication overload — to reduce email overflow.
Never schedule a meeting or call using email
Meeting scheduling via back-and-forth emails can cause team members to feel glued to their inboxes until they nail down a date and time. Instead, use a meeting-scheduling service that allows people to select a time from a list of open slots. Options include Calendly or Acuity for scheduling one-on-ones. For larger group meetings, Doodle offers an easy way to check and share availability.
Funnel emails to process, project, or role-specific receptacles
Newport believes seeing related obligations in one place makes it simpler to consolidate tasks and identify systems for streamlining future work. For example, you may consider writing a FAQ page to answer common questions. Many organizations use task boards to post all details related to a project. Project management tools, such as Wrike, Workzone, or Mondays, enable employees to discuss specific projects all in one place without confusing email streams.
Hold office hours
Encourage managers to set regular times when they’ll be available to answer questions that may otherwise require a lot of back-and-forth messaging. If working remotely, use Zoom, Slack, or another video chat service. Ask employees to batch non-urgent questions for these times.
Cut out the non-essentials
Go ahead and unsubscribe from newsletters you do not read and other non-essential distractions, such as notification emails from your project management software. If you want to hang on to those emails, set up filters so they automatically archive. Unroll.Me can also help by showing you a list of everything you’re subscribed to so you can easily unsubscribe from multiple campaigns at once.
Create communication boundaries
Create communication guidelines and discuss them with your team. For example, don’t use “reply all” unless everyone on the list needs to receive your reply. Or use instant messaging instead of email for simple questions that require a yes or no answer. While these tips sound simple, setting expectations on how frequently you’ll respond to emails can help curb a constant need to check your inbox. Want to take things a step further? Consider a “Zzzmail” policy — no emails on nights and weekends.
If we’ve learned anything from the research above, it’s that email can be pretty overwhelming. While it’s a helpful tool in the workplace, consider the strategies above to improve your team’s productivity and wellbeing.