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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

The Scientific Reasons Why Email Makes You Feel So Anxious

Email taps into all my biggest fears and anxieties. When I have unread messages lingering in my inbox, I feel stressed. When I forget to respond to someone for a week, I feel like a traitor. When I write something that accidently upsets someone because it lacks my usual exclamation points, I feel mean. Overall, it’s not much of a confidence booster for me.

The thing is, I do this to myself. If I didn’t let myself get bothered by all the trivial aspects, I’d probably feel so much better on a daily basis. However, that’s easier said than done. It’s one thing to know my inbox drives me insane, it’s another to stop letting it make me feel that way.

Author Jocelyn K. Glei gets this. In fact, she attempts to get to the bottom of it in her new book, Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real. In the first few chapters, she dives into the science behind our email addiction and why our inboxes have the power to make us so anxious.

And of all the facts she shared, these hit home the hardest:

We’re Like Rats

A psychologist in the 1930’s discovered that rats are more motivated by random rewards (press a lever, receive food at random) than fixed rewards (press a lever, receive food every 100 tries). Similarly, when we refresh our inboxes, we never know when we’ll get a message that interests us (our reward)—but it’s that lingering possibility that keeps us hooked.

To quote Glei, “Most of the time when you ‘press the lever’ to check your email messages, you get something disappointing or bothersome—a communication from a frustrated client or a boss with an urgent request. But every once in a while you press the lever and you get something exciting—an email from a long lost friend…And it’s those random rewards…that we find so addictive.”

We’re Chasing a Moving Target

When we complete a task, our brain releases a burst of dopamine—which feels really good. This causes us to want to satisfy our “urge to completion.” The problem with this, according to Glei? Email is never “complete”—we’re trying to chase a moving target: “While you attend to it, you have the false sensation of advancing toward a goal, but the moment you look away, the target shifts further into the distance as more messages roll in,” she says.

We Never Know How People Really Feel

A good chunk of our communication’s nonverbal—reading people’s movements, facial cues, and tone. Because communicating online lacks this kind of “social feedback,” interacting gets complicated.

One psychologist discovered that we tend to read negatively into a message’s tone—meaning “every message you send gets automatically downgraded a few positivity notches by the time someone else receives it,” says Glei. “[I]f the sender felt positive about an email, then the receiver usually just felt neutral. And if the sender felt neutral about the message, then the receiver typically felt negative about it.” Basically, you’ll never feel great about any email you receive.

We Can Never Leave a Request Untouched

Numerous studies prove humans are inclined to the “rule of reciprocity.” Glei says, “At its most basic level this means that we want to respond to a positive action with another positive action.” So, say, if your mom sends you a lengthy article, you feel obligated to write her back with a peppy “Thanks, Mom!” even though you didn’t really read it. Or, if your manager sends a quick update to the team without intending to get a response, you still feel inclined to send something back.

Long story short, most of this stress is coming from our own heads. But the ramifications of it are more than just bursts of anxiety—it affects our work, our creativity, and our well-being.

“Email is killing our productivity,” says Glei when I asked her why she was so drawn to writing about this topic. “The average person checks their email 11 times an hour, processes 122 messages a day, and spends 28% of their total workweek on email.” To spell that out for you, the average person is checking their email every 5.4 minutes!

So, how do we begin to fight our instincts and save ourselves? (Besides picturing ourselves like rats?)

Glei offers solutions in the book. To combat the “urge to completion,” you can track your progress on paper by journaling your “small wins” at the end of the day to see how far you’ve come. Or, to fight against your “rule of reciprocity,” you can picture your inbox like a physical stack of mail—would you honestly respond to every letter you got? (Answer: no) Other options she suggests are crafting a daily routine of checking your email (a.k.a., not every 5.4 minutes, but once or twice a day) and creating shortcuts for yourself.

Shortcuts like using templates that make responding quickly and politely a 30-second task (instead of one you’re working on for 20 minutes). In the book, Glei includes various types of messages for this very purpose.

For example, how to get out of a very long-winded email thread:

Looks like you guys have taken the reins on this conversation! Would you mind moving me to “bcc” so that I can bow out?

Or, if you want to keep it between only one person:

Sean—Would you mind moving me to “bcc” when you respond? I’m waging war on inbox clutter this week :).

Email can consume your life and well-being, but only if you let it. Give yourself the chance to focus on more important things by giving up your obsession with it. Then, as Glei says, you’ll actually be able to create meaningful work that makes you feel good.

Photo of person on email courtesy of Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images.