The other day, I accidentally referred to my cat’s litter box as “the inbox”.
At first, I laughed at the slip, but then realized the connection isn’t too far off; both need to be emptied out regularly or else things will get out of control fast.
And sometimes, there’s a lot more crap coming in than we care to deal with.
It’s no secret that work emails are a huge source of stress for many. And it doesn’t help that they can follow you around everywhere. There used to be days when my phone blew up with new email notifications so often, it was a wonder the damn thing didn’t start smoking.
If you can relate, then it’s time to break free of your inbox misery.
Here are the best five hacks for overcoming inbox stress and saving your sanity:
1. Get Organized
In my opinion, one of the most beautiful sights in the world in an empty inbox. But you need to be highly-organized if you’re ever going to reach Inbox Zero. Therefore, your first priority should be to create subfolders so that you can file your emails by category.
For things that need to remain in your inbox to be handled, use labels and flags to keep yourself organized.
For example, I use Outlook at work and a simple way to organize my inbox is to use a flag or red label for things that need my attention promptly. I use green labels for low priority items and blue labels for emails I have already answered but may need to follow up on.
Using labels in this way can give you a quick visual overview of what needs to be actioned first.
Most email applications also have a ton of shortcuts and other features that can help you keep your inbox organized. It’s worth the investment of your time to learn these features now in order to save your sanity later.
This quick video has some great steps for organizing your Outlook inbox if you need help getting savvy with email shortcuts!:
2. Limit Emails to Specific Times Each Day
The problem with having your emails open all the time is that it serves as a constant interruption throughout your day. Not only does it get stressful quickly, constantly stopping whatever you’re doing to answer your emails will make you less productive.
It depends on your line of work, but try confining your time spent on emails to two or three specific points in the day. For example, 45 minutes in the morning, and 45 minutes in the afternoon. Then the rest of your day is free to focus on other tasks without interruption.
This means exiting out of your email application and disabling notifications while you’re outside of these predetermined time frames.
That includes email notifications on your phone too.
If this isn’t feasible in your line of work, then at least implement an “email curfew”, or a hard rule that emails will be shut off for the day after a certain time.
If you’re worried about time-sensitive emails coming in outside of your scheduled email time, use your out-of-office reply to instructs email senders to call you for urgent matters only.
3. Spring Clean Yourself From Other People’s Contact Lists
The reality is, up to 62% of your emails are just not that important. In many cases, you might not need to be receiving them at all.
If you work at a company or with a team of people, review any existing group emails you’re a part of and reevaluate if you really need to be on them.
If you get hundreds of newsletters a month, unsubscribe liberally and often (you can use a tool like Unroll.me to speed things up). Too many of us fall in the trap of “I’ll read that later when I have time!” But if you didn’t have time then, you’re not going to have time later.
These may be super simple actions but they will make a big impact on keeping inbox clutter at bay.
4. Consider Outsourcing Your Emails
This tip is not an option for everyone, but email stress is particularly rampant in solopreneurs and small business owners. If you’ve been running the show solo, it could be time to look at hiring extra help to keep your emails under control.
A lot of business owners are reluctant to relinquish their emails to a third party, but the truth is there are likely fewer emails that need your personal attention than you think. And it will free you up to focus on more important things that will keep your business growing.
The rise of the online virtual assistant means that finding someone to help you with email management is easier than ever. It may take a little training and money on your side to get a VA up and running, but you’ll be doing your business and mental health a solid!
5. Take a Break When You Need It
Sometimes, handling high volumes of emails is just part of the job. But on tough workdays when everything seems to be going wrong, your emotions can start getting the better of you.
I’m talking about that point when you’re so stressed that a lump forms in your throat and your eyes start stinging. Or when you’re so aggravated that you start hitting those computer keys just a little too hard.
And suddenly, you’re one rude email away from a trip to Meltdown City.
It happens to the best of us. (I used to visit Meltdown City so often that I almost filled up my punchcard for a free aneurysm.)
That’s when it’s time to take a break.
It might seem counterintuitive since these emails that are stressing you out are likely urgent. But you’re not going to make good decisions or write productive emails if your stress levels reach critical mass.
Physically remove yourself from the stress by putting down your phone or walking away from your computer. Take a few minutes to really put things in perspective.
A quick, five-minute meditation can really help with this. But if meditation isn’t your thing, ask yourself the following questions:
Will answering your emails cure cancer?
Or bring world peace?
Blow up the Death Star and save Alderaan?
Then go grab a coffee, and get back to it after you’ve had a chance to settle down.
You Are the Master of Your Inbox
Emails are a fast and easy way to communicate, but if you’re not careful it can threaten your work-life balance and mental health.
Fortunately, with a little strategy and planning, you can be the master of your inbox (or let someone else be the master of it for you!)
It starts with remembering that email is nothing more than a communication tool to help you do business. Use it to work for you and not against you, and you’ll be able to ward off inbox stress good.
Now, if only I could find a way to deal with “litter box stress”...