Last Sunday, I wrote about feeling overloaded. This week, I tried a little experiment: every time that overload feeling crept in, I stopped for a moment and asked myself: why do you feel so overloaded right now? And I’m sure I’m not alone with the answer I came up with: more often than not, it was because of the never-ending influx of email.
I try to stay on top of email, and answer most within a few hours of receiving them. Then I came across a quote in an article on the difference between busy and productive people that really gave me pause: “Busy people respond quickly to emails. Productive people take their time.” The writer went on to say that emails are other peoples’ priorities, not yours. Talk about food for thought.
Email overload is a pervasive problem in our society. The reality is that email will keep pouring in, and there’s not much we can do to stop that. But the real problem lies with how we are dealing with email.
We’ve become addicted to email
We’ve become email addicts. We check it incessantly, whether on our computers or smart phones. We often use it to distract ourselves. I’ll admit to checking email when I feel stuck while writing, or when I’m standing in line, or when I’m bored in a meeting. It’s an easy way to avoid feelings of discomfort.
There’s actually a scientific explanation behind our email addiction: repeatedly checking email creates compulsive behavior by tapping into the brain’s reward circuit and operand conditioning: the association of stimulus and reward. Receiving that email gives you a little dopamine hit. Dopamine is one of the neurotransmitters that makes you feel good. It sends a message to your brain that says “Yay! Somebody loves me!” In time, your brain comes to associate this feeling with the notification alert sound on your device, and releases a squirt of dopamine each time it hears the signal. As if this weren’t bad enough, after you check your e-mail, your dopamine levels dip below normal, so you need another hit just to get your levels back to normal. If you’ve hit the “get new mail” button over and over and wondered why on earth you’re doing that, now you know.
Our email addiction is seductive, because it may actually make us feel productive. After all, we’re working, aren’t we? We’re responding in a timely manner! We’re clearing out our inbox!
Control your email, don’t let it control you
Numerous articles have been written about how to manage your email, from unsubscribing to unwanted newsletters to organizing and color coding email to turning off new mail notifications.
I already use folders, and I’m only subscribed to blogs and newsletter that provide information that I need or enjoy. All alerts on my phone are turned off.
Another common suggestion is to schedule specific times to answer emails during the day, and to make all other times off limits for dealing with email. I decided to give it a try.
You’ll have to find your own schedule, and it will depend on your business and how you use email in general. I’m currently trying to answer email three times a day: first thing in the morning, after lunch, and just before I turn the computer off for the day. It’s difficult – the temptation is to constantly check and answer email. I find it especially challenging to not check email on my phone after I’ve turned off the computer for the evening.
Email obsession as a tool for personal growth
The next time you feel compelled to check your email outside of your regular work hours, check in with yourself instead. What are you feeling? Are you lonely? Bored? You may be surprised at what comes up for you. While hitting that “check mail” icon may temporarily get rid of any uncomfortable feelings, you may be better served to sit with these emotions and allow yourself to get to the root of what’s really going on for you.
For me, it’s a work in progress. Some days, I stick to my self-imposed schedule, other days, not so much.
I’m pretty sure cats are mystified with our obsession with email and computers, and perhaps one of the reasons why they like to sit on our keyboards is to save us from ourselves.
Do you suffer from email overload? How do you cope?