The number of unread emails in my inbox recently reached an all-time high.
As someone who typically maintains an “unread count” of about 30, and gets more joy from “inbox zero” than I’d like to admit — seeing “792” when I arrived at work on Wednesday morning nearly killed me. (OK, not really, but it did give me a serious burst of anxiety.)
I began to wonder why email is such a huge source of stress for so many professionals in the workplace, so I reached out to Ron Friedman, a psychologist and author of “The Best Place To Work.”
“The reason it can feel overwhelming to find lots of emails in your work inbox,” he tells Business Insider, “is that each message represents another demand on your time and another decision you have to make. Even deciphering a generic announcement about the office coffee maker requires effort, which leaves less energy for work that matters.”
The higher the number of demands placed on you, the more likely you are to experience stress, which impacts your ability to think and communicate clearly, he explains.
“There’s no question that constantly checking email is bad for both productivity and quality of life,” Friedman adds. “There have been some fascinating studies showing that limiting email-checking to a few times a day — say, at 9am, 12pm, and 4pm — improves well-being and makes work feel more controllable.”
And the reason is simple: There are fewer distractions diverting your attention away from your current projects, enabling you to make more progress and therefore feel as if your workload is manageable.
“I think managers would do well to take this research to heart,” he says. “They can start by empowering their employees to turn off their email when they need to be focused on work, and modelling this behaviour themselves so that their team members have clear evidence that it’s acceptable.”
Modelling the use of distraction-free periods and shunning smartphones during meetings can go a long way toward signaling to employees that focused work is valued, and that they need not feel tethered to their email, says Friedman.
Here are a two simple ways to minimize (or even eliminate) your email-related stress:
1. Create a routine in which you DON’T check email for 30 to 50 minutes at a time, a few times per day.
“I really like the idea of only checking email a few times a day but I’m not sure it’s realistic in a lot of professions,” Friedman explains. “What I do think is realistic is aiming for 30- to 50-minute bursts of uninterrupted work with your email off and your cell phone out of view.”
You don’t have to do this all day, everyday — but even a few focused periods can have an enormous impact on your productivity and stress levels, he says. “To perform at our best, we require distraction-free periods in which we can leverage our full, uninterrupted attention.”
2. Deactivate your email pop-up setting so that you aren’t interrupted every time an email arrives.
Unless you’ve changed the default settings on your email, you are treated to a notification — a pop-up message, the sound of a bell, or a counter that signals your growing number of unread messages — every time a new email arrives in your inbox.
“Each time this happens your brain is forced to make a series of decisions (Check email or keep going? Respond now or later?) that drain your mental energy,” he says.
These disruptions add up.
“Studies indicate that even brief interruptions exponentially increase our chances of making mistakes. This is because when our attention is diverted, we use up valuable cognitive resources reorienting ourselves, leaving less mental energy for completing our work,” Friedman explains.
Research also suggests that frequent decision-making causes us to tire. The resulting fatigue makes it harder for us to distinguish tasks that are truly important from those that simply feel urgent — and this can be seriously stressful.
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