Conquer Your Email Inbox, Increase Productivity and Reduce Stress

Email Inbox

Story at-a-glance -

  • Finances and work are the two leading causes of stress in America today, impacting the economy and your health
  • Research demonstrates that controlling your interaction with a constant stream of digital data may improve your productivity, concentration and memory
  • Although you may find it a challenge, using these strategies may increase your productivity and reduce your stress from overexposure to digital data

By Dr. Mercola

Finances and work are the two leading causes of stress in America today, according to the American Psychological Association (APA) annual survey.1

The survey also demonstrates how financial stress has impacted the health of Americans, as 12 percent of people skipped seeking healthcare because of finances and 31 percent said money was a major source of conflict in their relationship.2

Although you cannot control the country’s economy, you can control your own workday and productivity, thus reducing some of your daily stress levels.

Lack of movement or sitting all day, lack of exercise, interaction with technology, lack of sleep and a poor nutritional plan may all reduce your productivity and your feeling of satisfaction with the work you accomplish.

While each of these factors holds a key to improved focus and productivity, it is through your interaction with technology that you may experience the most dramatic change in the shortest period of time.

Control Your Email Inbox

Many spend hours of their day in front of a computer screen, using email as a source of communication with their superiors, customers and teams. In this video, James Hamblin, an editor at The Atlantic, describes how he’s been able to cut down on the amount of time he spends writing and reading emails.3

His first step is to create shorter emails, without the customary greeting and signatures common in written letters. His point is that your recipient already knows who is sending and receiving the email from the sent and receiving email addresses.

Next, keep your message brief. Three lines or less are all that are needed to communicate your thoughts to the recipient and should cut down on the amount of time it takes you to both write an email and your recipient to read your incoming email.

If more information is needed, it’s time to pick up the phone and have a conversation. However, the strategy that will most significantly reduce the amount of time you spend with your inbox open is to stop using your email as a "to-do" list.4

In other words, every time a new email hits your inbox, it is not a signal to open and read. You’ve probably been tempted to look at new emails each time you’re notified, even when you receive the same emails each day.

It turns out there is good reason for your highly distractible brain to engage with each new ding on your computer, and it is not associated with the relative importance of the email content.

It Is All About Your Brain

This is part of an interview I did with Dr. Theo Compernolle on several topics, including his work in clinical psychiatry, neuropsychiatry and neurology and the relationship between your brain function and your ability to multitask.

By understanding the way your brain functions you can significantly improve your productivity.

Although many believe that multitasking is not only possible, but also the best way to accomplish more in less time, the converse is actually true. To understand, it’s helpful to think of your brain as a complex and multi-functional computer.

Your 80 billion neurons, and the 1,000 to 300,000 connections between each of those neurons, are interconnected.

The reflexive part of your brain deals with the absolute here and now. This is the part of your brain that processes your senses. The reflective part of your brain allows you to think abstractly and to think about that which does not yet exist.

When you create a contingency plan based on what you think may happen in the future you’re using your reflective brain.

The part of your brain that stores memory Compernolle calls your “archiving brain.” However, when you are actively thinking, your brain doesn’t have enough processing memory to archive. Only when you take a break from thinking does your brain get the opportunity to archive, such as the first part of the night when you’re sleeping.

For a more in-depth discussion of these three functions of your brain, see my previous article titled, “Understanding Your Brain Can Make You Calmer and Much More Productive.” These three functions explain why multi-tasking is not as productive as you may have imagined.

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Choose a Single Task to Engage Your Greatest Potential

As you’re surfing the internet your brain is engaged in reflexive work. Each new page, bit of information or piece of data occupies your brain and you lose track of time. This is why you may sit to search for one piece of information, only to look up at the clock and realize 30 minutes have passed without you realizing it.

The same holds true for watching videos or watching television. Your reflexive brain is fully engaged and time appears to stand still. However, when you are concentrating on completing a task, your focus and intent increases the potential you’ll successfully finish the task.

Interrupt that train of thought from your reflective brain, and you could lose up to two minutes of productive time, according to Compernolle. He explains the process this way:5

“When you’re working you have all the information in your working memory. Then a pop screen appears signaling a message in your inbox. Just having the pop screen on makes you lose two minutes of concentration. It’s a dip in your concentration, even if you don’t look at it.

But this time you look at it and you think, ‘Oh it’s a little email from HR, I can answer this.’ No! That’s not the case for your brain. Imagine what your brain has to do.

It has to take this difficult, creative thing you were working on and put it in temporary memory, clean your working memory, then go to long term memory, get the information you need to answer the email and answer the email.”

You have a limited amount of temporary memory. So as time progresses and you continue to be distracted by other tasks, your temporary memory becomes full. Unfortunately, you can’t prioritize your temporary memory, so the first memories that go in are the first to leave when your temporary memory becomes full.

Interacting With Technology

Using technology has increased the perception that your brain was designed to multitask. With multiple tabs open on your browser, email set to notify you when an email arrives, push notifications coming to your desktop and multiple apps running in the background on your phone, you might have believed you could keep track of everything all at once.

Now that you recognize the fallacy in that argument, it’s time to develop new skills that will increase your productive time and reduce your overall stress. By focusing on a single task, you block out the remaining items on your “to-do” list, and can fully engage your reflective brain to produce work.

Email and social media are two of the most common challenges. According to a study from the University of California, Irvine, participants spent an average of 11 minutes concentrating before being interrupted, and could take up to 20 minutes getting back on task.6 The trouble is that multi-tasking indulges your curiosity and you may find it fun.

Another study found employees wasted 25 percent of their working day on a continuous stream of incoming data, essentially costing the U.S. economy $997 billion each year. 7 More data from Stanford University found people who juggle several types of electronic material cannot control their memory, pay attention or manage to take on one job after another with the same competency as people who focus on completing one task at a time.8

Strategies You Can Use to Reduce Interruption and Increase Production

Reducing the number of times you are interrupted during the day may improve your productivity and reduce your stress levels. Completing your tasks will give you a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. It is up to you to protect your cognitive resources throughout your day. Here are several strategies you may consider:

Turn It Off

Turn off your email, phone and social media notifications while you’re focusing on a single task. This may be challenging at first, as some say being without digital connection leaves them feeling anxious.9

If this is the case, begin slowly to accommodate your anxiety and discover you really can get more work done in a shorter period of time when you aren’t interrupted.

Batch Process Emails

Go through your email no more than three times each day. Let your co-workers know that if something is urgent they should phone you with the information or to let you know an email is coming. Process all your email during those three times and otherwise keep your email client closed.

Be Brief

Consider the strategies Hamblin described. When you are brief in your communication it reduces the amount of time you need to go through email. If you think it will require several emails, it may be more productive to pick up the phone and reduce the potential for miscommunication. Also remember you do not actually have to respond to all emails.

Send Emails to Specific People

Reduce or eliminate the number of people who receive a courtesy copy and never hit “reply all” unless everyone actually must be notified. This reduces the amount of wasted time in your inbox and those of your co-workers.

Abandon the Idea You Will Keep Up

Hamblin aspires to a "zero-inbox" status. While it may be possible in some circumstances, it may not be in yours. If you leave and there are still a couple unanswered emails in your inbox, it isn’t something to stress about. Those emails will still be there in the morning, when you can answer them with fresh ideas.

Store information you want to look at later without cluttering your browser tabs using One Tab extension for Firefox or Chrome.

This brings all your tabs into one tab and stores them until you delete them. Store your browser tabs at the end of the day, or just a couple tabs you want to spend time reading after you’ve finished your project.

Focus on What Really Matters

At work, or at home, focus on the social media or emails that really matter to your daily functions or your family life. If it doesn’t have an immediate consequence, save the surfing or social media for an hour of entertainment time you schedule into your day.

Keep a list of what you want to accomplish for the day using Wunderlist. This is an online tool to make lists, create recurring tasks and keep your day organized.

Declutter Your Environment

Having a clutter-free desk or office also frees your mind from stress and clutter. You might find a small plant or fish bowl also increases a peaceful attitude.

Work When It’s Quiet

You may be most productive at 6 a.m. before the family gets up, at lunch when the office is quiet, or after 5 p.m., when you can stay until 6:30 p.m. when everyone else has gone home, and then leave when rush hour traffic has cleared. Find what works for your personal lifestyle and use the quiet moments to power through more work with less distractions.

Focus on Your Health

When your brain has optimum nutrition, you have had enough sleep to detoxify your brain cells and archive your memories, and enough exercise to strengthen your immune system, muscles and heart, you’ll feel better about yourself, and your brain and body will function optimally. When you focus on your long-term health you’ll also improve your productivity.

Don’t spend the day sitting behind your desk. A stand-up desk is ideal. If you cannot get one, make sure to get up at regular intervals to stretch, do some jumping jacks or just walk to the water cooler for some water. You may lose a minute or two of productivity, but you’ll also reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease from sitting too long.

Stay Present

One way to stay focused on a single task is to stay present in the moment. This is a form of meditation you can strive to practice all day. Don’t let your mind wander to events in the past or the future, but attempt to stay focused on the present moment.