Can you count the hours you spent on emails this month? How about this week, or even today? I’m pretty sure you can’t.

In the maelstrom of our office and personal life, email has become a cornerstone of our daily activity for good and bad. Spending countless hours checking email has become a habit ingrained in our subconscious. Checking and managing email has the potential to become a sinkhole for just about anyone.

In 2013, the typical corporate email user sends and receives an estimate of 115 emails; that’s roughly 2.5 hours every day spent only on writing them. That doesn’t leave the “typical corporate email user” much time to do anything else and is why we must learn how to process email better.

“Our biggest job is to define what our work is.” Peter Drucker

Keep in mind that email is just a tool for doing your job; it’s not meant to replace your job specs and objectives.

Measuring and monitoring your email habits will bring much needed structure, and since we’re dealing with a considerable chunk of your day, it will also raise your productivity.

We might start with the best of intentions, but unless we deal with some “hidden” forces, the battle won’t be won. There are a few things that you need to know about your email habits — things that aren’t entirely within your control…

Force number #1: Our lizard brain

There’s a part of our brain that always strives for perfection. It drives meticulous behaviors and ultimately, makes us waste disproportionate amounts of time on tasks that are sometimes trivial in nature — our lizard brain.

“The lizard brain is on high alert to make sure that everything is okay. The lizard brain can’t rest until it knows that everyone likes us, that no one is offended, that all graphs are ticking up and to the right, and the future is assured. But of course, the future (and the present) isn’t perfect. It can’t be.” Seth Godin

By the way, that’s why we mark emails as unread. We want the conditions to be perfect when we open our email, and “the here and now” is never perfect, so maybe later. Try to understand, the conditions will never be perfect, so you’ll have to make things work for you. That’s why you should never open an email, and mark it “unread;” make sure you only touch it once and process it (coming to you from the GTD Master – David Allen).

Force Number #2: FOMO – Fear of missing out

Fear of missing out, or FOMO, is a behavior we’ve cultivated through years of evolution. Evolution, through natural selection, preferred the “FOMO gene” and pushed it up the ladder because a hunter-gatherer with FOMO is a better hunter-gatherer. Curiosity and a need to reap as many rewards as possible brought us to this point in time but, alas, nowadays, FOMO doesn’t serve us as well.

FOMO is one of the major reasons we open emails the second we receive them. Our Smartphones (or perhaps I should call them something else…) even help distract us with sounds and flashing lights each time a new email or text message arrives. Yes…text messages are just another form of email — the name doesn’t trick me.

Sure, you’re probably telling yourself that it’s just your way of managing your tasks better. But you fail to realize that you are managing nothing! Your emails and texts are managing you! This may be a key driver in missing deadlines, failing to set priorities, and not completing tasks, which ultimately may prevent you from sleeping well at night, i.e. the Zeigarnik effect.

That’s why you need to schedule opening emails during a designated time frame and no more than two to three times per day.

Force number #3: Depression

Yes, I said it…Depression. A study published on 2011 by Sriram Chellappan from the Missouri University of Science and Technology suggests that people suffering from depression engage in a very high level of email usage.

“Study participants with depressive symptoms tended to engage in very high e-mail usage. This perhaps was to be expected: research by the psychologists Janet Morahan-Martin and Phyllis Schumacher has shown that frequent checking of e-mail may relate to high levels of anxiety, which itself correlates with depressive symptoms.” Sriram Chellappan NYTimes 06/12.

This doesn’t mean that if you spend hours upon hours on emails, you’re suffering from depression; it means that people who are suffering from depression tend to spend more time on emails. Why? Because you may be looking for ways to lift your spirit, and your brain remembers how to occupy you in pursuit of online happiness.

To make things worse, we also find ourselves nowadays surrounded by environmental forces influencing our ability to process emails, like increased email consumption via mobile, which prolongs the amount of time we spend on emails.

Add to the mix an unsatisfied lizard brain, a FOMO tendency, and the above mentioned Zeigarnik effect and you get one depressive concoction that makes things worse for people who already suffer from depression, so be aware.

Historical statistics show that the amount of emails we process on a daily basis is only going to increase as technology progresses, challenging us both physically and mentally. Preparing ourselves and learning about ways to process emails more efficiently and in a more organized way is a must if we want to be more productive!

For many the issue of inbox overwhelm isn’t simply about being in an email heavy job, it’s very much about the deluge of incoming information.: 6 Strategies to Organize Overwhelming Email: Stem the Flood of Information

Featured photo credit: An image of some flying envelopes via Shutterstock

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