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I deleted 1,321 unread emails and instantly cured my email anxiety

November 9, 2022, 3:30 PM UTC
Young female checking emails
The average worker spends 4.1 hours per day checking email.
Fizkes—Getty Images

After two back-to-back vacations toward the end of summer, I found myself with a growing number of unread emails—1,321, to be exact. There was no way I’d ever be able to catch up, so I did something completely out of character for me: I deleted them all without a second thought or glance.

Anyone who’s ever worked a desk job knows that staying on top of email is practically a full-time job within itself. A 2016 survey found people spend an average 4.1 hours per day checking work email—and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic made many jobs virtual.

But as Dorie Clark writes in a 2018 article on the topic for Harvard Business Review, the psychological toll is even greater. “[R]egardless of how much time I spent, it seemed like I was always stressed about the unanswered messages in my inbox,” she says. I could certainly relate.  

“The issue with the anxiety associated with our emails is that it can affect our day-to-day functioning and our ability to fully show up at both work and in our lives,” says Dr. Sharon Lo, licensed clinical psychologist and clinical strategy lead of outcomes and quality at Modern Health. 

Some examples of how email anxiety may show up are thinking about email during times when you’re not working, like late at night, or when you’re trying to decompress. You may also be experiencing email anxiety if you find yourself “excessively worrying about the emails you need to respond to, and it results in avoidant behavior like not checking email at all, feeling a sense of paralysis when it comes to making decisions, or impulsive behavior that leads to sending notes that you didn’t mean to send,” says Lo. 

“It could also manifest in perfectionist tendencies, where you feel the need to reread and correct your email multiple times, even if it’s a low-stakes situation,” she says. “It’s critical to be honest with yourself about these tendencies because email anxiety can take up a lot of mental real estate, leaving less space for work and other personal priorities. A helpful starting point would be asking yourself how much of your mental real estate is focused on emails and how you feel about that percentage.”

For me, I feel an immense amount of (self-imposed) pressure to successfully manage everything in my life, including email, even if doing so is unrealistic and sets impossibly high standards for myself. If I don’t respond in a timely manner, then somehow that means I’m not professional or the sender will hate me (at least these are the lies my brain feeds me).

When I first started at Fortune—my first full-time newsroom job in eight years—I prided myself on replying to publicists in a timely fashion. After all, I’d been on the PR end of sending pitches for five years in my roles at various nonprofits, so I made an extra effort to reply, even if it was a “thanks but no thanks” type of situation. But as I quickly learned, I couldn’t keep up or else I’d be spending more time replying to emails than writing actual stories, the latter being the task I’m actually paid to do. Moreover, I learned that nobody really expected me to keep up—I was my own worst enemy here.

So when I realized there was no coming back from my email pileup (and there were no real consequences for not replying), I did a quick scan for important emails from colleagues and sources for stories and then I deleted all of the unread ones—all 1,321 emails. Now, looking back I could’ve been a little less dramatic and simply marked them all as “read,” but I’m a Scorpio and drama is kind of my thing.

Immediately after I deleted the emails I could feel my anxiety start to dissipate. As someone who prides herself on reaching the elusive inbox zero (for the most part), this felt like caving in to the email gods. Fine, you win, I muttered in defeat. But what I won was peace of mind…no more red bubble with an ungodly amount of emails taunting me from the dock at the bottom of my computer screen.

Below are five tips that have helped me combat email anxiety:

Set boundaries on when and where you check email: At the start of my time here at Fortune I decided I wouldn’t add my work email to my phone and I wouldn’t check email after work hours. But it’s never too late to set boundaries whether you’ve been at a job for two months or 20 years, so delete that app and don’t look back.

Lo also recommends not checking email first thing in the morning. “To combat email anxiety, I’d recommend putting some self-regulation strategies in place, like replacing checking email first thing in the morning by doing something small for yourself instead, whether that’s making a cup of coffee or meditating,” she says. “It’s important to check in with yourself first rather than getting sucked into your email first thing in the morning.”

Communicate your email boundaries: You can also create an email signature that directly addresses your response time and promotes healthy boundaries, suggests Lo. “For instance, my email signature says, ‘Please know that I do not expect a reply from you on evenings or weekends. I’ll be ‘offline’ during those times as well. If it’s an urgent matter, please reach me at….’” 

Schedule dedicated email time: As previously mentioned, managing your inbox can be a full-time job, so I set dedicated times for checking email: shortly after logging on and checking in with my team for the day; right before lunch; and at the end of the day. At the end of the week, when it tends to be quieter, I’ll spend more time reading, sorting and replying to emails.

Change your settings: If you’re someone like me who is easily overwhelmed by outstanding notifications, turn off desktop alerts and notifications. Constant pings are kryptonite for productivity.

Delete with cautious abandonment: If you ever find yourself stressed out by the number of emails in your inbox, feel free to mass delete and move forward with your life. It’s not the end of the world (so long as you ensure there aren’t any important messages from your boss in the mix), I promise you. 

Now of course all of this requires discretion on your part regarding your role and the urgency it requires, but unless you’re literally charged with saving someone’s life, chances are you could probably dial it back on the email.

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