I have 19,834 unread email messages in my inbox. I’m fine. My coworkers, less so. Just seeing the phrase “Inbox (19,834)” on an open tab makes them tremble and break out in a nervous sweat. But I’m an anomaly—in office environments, email anxiety is the rule rather than the exception.
Research has shown that the average professional spends four hours per day responding to work emails, and one 2016 study found that people consistently report checking their email as one of their most stressful daily activities, especially when their email arrives via “push” feature on a device. “Whilst it can be a valuable communication tool, it’s clear that it’s a source of stress of frustration for many of us,” coauthor on the study Richard MacKinnon told The Telegraph.
Checking our email may stress us out because “each message represents another demand on your time and another decision you have to make,” psychologist Ron Friedman told Business Insider. “Even deciphering a generic announcement about the office coffee maker requires effort, which leaves less energy for work that matters.” Dorie Clark, a marketing specialist, agrees. “Each ‘yes’ leads to a cascade of (typically unforeseen) work,” she wrote in a recent article for the Harvard Business Review. “Saying no is a challenge for any professional: you don’t want to disappoint people, and any given opportunity may lead to positive outcomes.”
It’s also possible that email grabs us and tortures us as a sort of emotional game of roulette. The same way gambling addicts feel dread in their guts even as pressure mounts to double down, email provides intermittent rewards and disappointments at a rate ideal for creating stressful addictions.
“We never know for sure when a new message will come into our inbox, or if it will be positive, negative, or a discount offer from Old Navy,” Quartz suggested in 2017. “Will 50 new messages be awaiting this morning? An email from your boss with feedback on your latest project? Ding, ding, ding! It’s a one-liner from your partner saying ‘We need to talk’.”
Reducing email stress may be as simple as checking your inbox less often. One 2015 study found that adults who check their email infrequently report lower levels of stress and better overall well-being and performance at work. However urgent it may seem to keep up with your email, experts suggest that less time focused on your inbox means more time focused on actual productivity. “There’s no question that constantly checking email is bad for both productivity and quality of life,” Friedman says. “Limiting email-checking to a few times a day—say, at 9 am, 12 pm, and 4 pm—improves well-being and makes work feel more controllable.”
Even if you absolutely must check your email every few minutes, it helps to learn to say no and to filter out emails that don’t deserve your time or emotional energy.
“What counts as an important email?” Clark asks. “I’ll suggest that the truly essential ones are client communication and inquiries about potential new engagements…The answer, then, is to avoid getting lost in the endless stream and instead to focus on the small percentage of messages that matter most.”
In other words, you don’t need to let 19,834 emails pile up in your inbox—but letting a couple of the least deserving messages languish in unread purgatory for a few hours could seriously increase your quality of life.