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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

How to Stop Obsessively Checking Your Work Email (and Stressing Yourself Out)

Guess how many emails the average office worker receives every day? 121.

And that number is expected to rise to 140 by 2018.

Feeling jittery and panicked just thinking about it? You’re not alone. That flood of email encourages many professionals to constantly—almost obsessively—check for emails throughout the day, whether they’re on their way to work, in the midst of a meeting, or even having lunch with a colleague. This habit to check and recheck your inbox can be like an addiction.

What makes that worse is that new research that monitored email users’ heart rates proves that email is highly stressful. Stress elevates cortisol levels, which interfere with your body’s digestion and immune system, among other things. That means when you’re stressed, your energy plummets, your focus becomes scattered, and your productivity sinks.

Bottom line? Obsessively checking your email is stressful. Stress is bad for your health and your productivity. It’s a troubling cycle. And it’s got to stop.

But how?

Start With the Basics

While it’s highly tempting to give your inbox just one more refresh (and then another, and another), it’s important to your productivity and focus to re-train yourself to have a healthier relationship with email. (Some psychologists might term this “breaking an addiction.” I wouldn’t go quite that far, in most instances, so let’s stick with “changing a habit.”)

To start, make small adjustments in your day-to-day routine that will help you take that constant focus off your email:

  • Remove the push notifications from your phone so that you’re not notified every time you receive an email
  • Don’t leave your email open when you’re doing something else on your computer. It’s helpful, in fact, to strive to keep just one tab open.
  • Make an agreement with yourself to only check your inbox a certain number of times per hour or per day. This can differ for everyone—for some it may mean checking email every 15 minutes; for others, it may mean checking once, twice, or five times a day. The point is to set up a daily email routine that boosts your productivity and sense of accomplishment.
  • When you really need to focus and don’t want to be disrupted, try temporarily blocking new messages from appearing in your inbox (Inbox Pause works for me!).

Making these kinds of logistical adjustments can really help in the short term—they’re small steps that you can implement immediately. However, productivity hacks and apps won’t create lasting change until you also address the underlying emotional factors that are fueling your email obsession.

Get to the Root of the Issue

If you want to change a negative habit permanently, the first—and most important—step is to acknowledge why and how that habit was formed in the first place.

To figure that out, the next time you feel that urge to check your email, ask yourself the following four questions:

  • What am I feeling right now?
  • Why do I want to check my email right now?
  • Do I feel like I have to check my email right now?
  • Do I really need to check my email right now?

Based on your answers, what are your real motivations for wanting to check, check, and check again?

Common motivations that my clients often describe include:

  • Fear of missing out: “I need to constantly check my email throughout the day, or I might not respond to something in time—which could cause me to miss out on an opportunity.”
  • Worrying about what others will think: “If I don’t respond right away, my boss may think that I’m not conscientious, that I’m not on top of my work, or that I’m just goofing off all day.”
  • Wanting a distraction from boredom or stress: I’m bored, overwhelmed, or saturated with what I’m doing. Email gives me a time-out from what I’m supposed to be doing.”
  • Wanting to fill an emotional void or seeking human connection: “I feel a little lonely. It feels good to know that someone has sent me a message.”

Once you discover the underlying motivation that’s driving you to obsessively check your inbox, you have some powerful information that can help you change your habits.

Start Making New Choices

With that info, you can start making new choices and fulfilling your emotional needs in new ways—without relying on email as a crutch.

For example, are you craving that human connection? Simply get up during your lunch break, head over to a friendly co-worker’s desk and say, “Hi, how’s your day going?”

If you’re feeling stressed and need a distraction, take a five-minute break to read an interesting article, and then get back to work.

Worried about missing out? Remind yourself: “I’m focused on my work. If something is truly important, it will still be there, waiting for me, one or two hours from now. I don’t need to disrupt my current project right now.”

If you’re concerned that your boss will think you’re slacking if you aren’t responding to emails right away, reassure yourself: “My boss knows that I’m conscientious and diligent. If I don’t respond to an email right away, my boss will assume that I’m busy with other important work—and that’s a good thing.”

Email isn’t inherently good or bad; it’s just a tool. Invest some time in self-reflection, and make sure you’re using this tool in a way that supports your health, productivity, and career—rather than sabotaging it.

Whether you check your inbox one, two, or 60 times today, do it for the right reasons.

Photo of hand holding a plug courtesy of Shutterstock.