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How to Change Your Relationship with Email for the Better

Reframing how we view email can reduce overwhelm and improve productivity.

Key points

  • Email is a form of asynchronous communication yet people use it as synchronous communication, feeling pressure to respond to emails quickly.
  • Many carry unchecked beliefs about what their email says about them — for example, that if they don't respond quickly, they will let people down.
  • Tips for approaching email differently include batching emails to certain times of day and starting the work day with a task outside of email.

Email has become a common communication system in most professional practices. Originally, email was lauded as a form of communication that would dramatically improve how we work. Yet it appears email has commandeered most of our workday while also creeping into our life outside of work at an alarming rate.

The Biggest Misconception About Email

Working with groups all around the world, I have come upon a distinct difference in people who report email overwhelm versus those who report that email is simply part of their job. While many professionals report email overload and overwhelm, there is a unique perspective shared by those who don’t. For this select group, they view email as a form of asynchronous communication. By email's very nature, it is intended to be asynchronous communication. It is meant to be offline. A modern postcard so to speak.

Yet, many people treat and use email as a synchronous form of communication. We feel pressure to respond or feeling burden by the volume of email because we believe the person is waiting for us. It is as if we think they are tapping us on the shoulder and waiting for us to turn around. Our perception of email creates the overwhelm and nervousness.

What Do I Believe Email Says About Me?

We know that checking our email is habitual. We have created habits in how we use email. Yet rarely do we give audience to the cognitive habits about our email. What are you telling yourself about email? If I do not respond, my boss will think I am not working. If I don’t reply quickly, I will let people down. If I wait to respond, the client will go somewhere else or tell my boss I was not responsive. Or perhaps, an empty inbox means I can take a break.

I invite you to take a moment to reflect on the thinking that motivates your behaviour. What stories are you telling yourself about email and what it represents about you as a professional?

Now, what if you not responding to your boss is a real concern? What if there is an expectation that you are always supposed to be on? Unfortunately, email has become a performance indicator for many. "If my supervisor sends me an email, and I don’t respond right away, they will think I am not at my computer," or "If my staff doesn’t respond immediately to my ping on Teams, I can’t help but think they are not working for the company."

This is a faulty form of connection. Staff are nervous to step away from their computers while they are also hearing messaging of work-life balance. Few supervisors have received training on how to lead remote employees, so they are pulled into the email cycling trap. If someone is online, then they are working. It would be helpful to all those involved if we had a conversation about email, preferably not through email! Employees have also not been trained or coached in this area. We are making significant assumptions that people know how to work remotely and communicate with email effectively.

Let’s explore some key ideas about our relationship with email.

Refreshing Email Ideas

There are plenty of suggestions on how to work more effectively with email, yet common knowledge does not always lead to common practice. Here are a few ideas to approach email differently.

Call it what it is.

Email is a tool that can also be a distraction. Turning off notifications or batching emails to certain times of the workday is a better practice for time-on-task and improved workflows. Emails are also a placeholder for everyone else’s agenda for you. It’s not your agenda.

It is quite literally a place where we collect marching orders from others. And if you are always getting these “marching orders" and you become caught in that loop game of responding and hearing back, it can cause overwhelm.

Have an email approach.

Have a window of time dedicated to looking at your email. Morning, midday, late afternoon, etc., whenever you think works best with your schedule. It will help if you create boundaries around your email use. Also, be sure to communicate your "reply practices." This can be helpful to minimize people sending you multiple follow-ups that clutter your inbox. Talk with your supervisor and team about your windows for email. Let them know you have time-on-task work blocks, if that is possible.

Realize that things can stay in our inboxes longer than we think they can.

Your inbox messages are not like Mission Impossible instructions. There is no associated “this message will self-destruct in five seconds” rule. The messages will be there when you’re ready to tackle them. Take the time and recognize that we have to give ourselves a bigger response window. Again, email is a postcard. It is asynchronous communication. If you or your team requires synchronous communication tools, use tools specifically designed for that. If we are not careful, email can take over too many domains of our workflow. Be sure your email is not becoming your filing or storage system either.

Start your work day with a task to complete outside of email.

Reading and responding to emails can be an energy drain since it often involves pulling you in multiple directions or to think about many different facets of your job. If everything is a priority, then nothing can be a priority. I invite you to complete a task to start your day before you open email. Choose something simple. Purposely leave something from the day before. Do that first before you go into the long-lost realm of email. Doing that one task will give you a sense of efficacy. It will help you feel productive. That’s how you want to feel moving into your workday. Carry that sense of completion into the rest of your morning.

Ensure the last email you send makes someone smile.

Email can be a helpful tool for sharing appreciation and spreading feel-good thoughts. One of my favourite practices is to ensure that the last email I send for the day has the intention of making someone smile or brightening their day. End your day bringing a wee bit of joy, a little bit of light, or even a moment of merriment to the person who will receive it.

Email is very much part of our professional practices, but it does not have to dictate how you do your work. My hope for you is that your time in email is brief and your time-on-task, actually doing the work, is plentiful and purposeful.

More from Robyne Hanley-Dafoe Ed.D.
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