3 Steps to Reduce Email Stress: Organize, Reduce, and Take Control


By Erin Dietrich
Mar 27, 2013

Are you stressed by email? Do you spend more time on email than you want and should? It’s not too late to make a New Year’s resolution to manage your email -- instead of allowing email to manage you!

One of the Business & Finance Leadership Academy (BFLA) project teams analyzed the email stress levels at U-M to make recommendations to effectively reduce email stress while enhancing productivity. Read the full report to learn more about managing email stress, or follow these few techniques to reduce your stress and increase productivity.  I contributed to the study as a member of the BFLA Class of 2012. Check out the summary below!

Adapted by Erin Dietrich from original article written by Tom Amerman for ITS newsletter

1.  Get Organized

The Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology promotes processing incoming emails to keep your inbox clean. The GTD method reduces stress by tracking tasks received by email so you don’t need to remember them all. Here are a few tools to help follow the GTD method:

  • Use ActiveInbox to create a to do list in your inbox. ActiveInbox creates labels for immediate tasks (!Next), action items (!Action), and emails you’re waiting on (!Waiting On).
  • Enable Multiple Inboxes in the Gmail labs section to add extra organization to your inbox. Multiple Inboxes can act as your electronic “to do” list. Create labels specifically to track your emails, and display them in separate categories.
  • Other tools are in Gmail can be used to help organize your mail. Use labels and set up filters to automatically label emails according to your criteria as they are received.

Following the Getting Things Done methodology is one way to help cut down your email stress.

2.  Reduce Volume

The Leadership Academy study found that email stress is directly related to the volume of email you have to deal with. Here are a few tips to help you reduce the noise from your inbox so the important items aren’t lost in the shuffle.

  • Install Gmail Meter to get a clear idea of your email habits and increase your email self-awareness. It’s important to understand how you’re spending your time before making choices about what to change and what changes might have the most impact. The Gmail Meter tool will send you statistics about your email inbox and usage on the 1st day of every month.  (Privacy Note: To use the tool, you must agree to share your email data with a 3rd party. There is a small risk associated with this. If you are concerned, you can run the report once and then revoke access to the tool or use Google's own Account Activity report.)

  • Collaborate on group tasks using tools such as Google Docs, M+Box, and Google Hangout - instead of email.
  • Unsubscribe from unnecessary bulk email!
  • Limit “thank you” messages. As an alternative, use “thanks in advance” when sending a request. Sending fewer emails to others should result in receiving fewer in return.
  • Create filters to automatically label listserv and other subscribed group emails. For the subscribed emails you don’t need to read immediately, consider choosing to skip your inbox when you create the filter. You will eliminate distracting emails from your inbox during the workday, and you can refer back to them later. There are multitudes of other practical ways to implement using filters to dramatically decrease your volume of email.

3.  Take Control

We can take control of our email related stress by managing expectations, limiting interruptions & task switching, and using all communication mediums at the appropriate time.

Manage Expectations

The Leadership Academy study found that there is a lot of stress related to a perceived expectation that we should be responding to emails immediately, during all of our waking hours. New technology such as smartphones and tablets has only increased the stress. The only way to combat this is to come to a shared expectation that email does not need to be responded to immediately, and does not need to be responded to during off-hours, except for on-call personnel. This is something for us to think and talk about with our staff, teams, and units. Based on the findings from the pilot for the Leadership Academy study, it is not recommended that we dictate that email not be used during off-hours, but simply make it clear that it is not required.

Limit Interruptions and Task Switching

Interruptions and task switching increases stress and decreases employee productivity. A research study by the University of California, Irvine found that people who do not look at email on a regular basis during the workday have less stress and are more productive. To take control, the following recommendations were included in the Leadership Academy study:

  • Plan on times to read and respond to email. It is suggested that you block out 2 to 3 times a day (i.e. A.M., noon, & P.M.) to read email and ignore it the rest of the time.
  • Turn off email alerts. If you aren’t worried about responding to emails immediately, you are free to be productive and focused on your work. You control your pace and your time.
  • Stop trying to multitask. At the heart of it all is the idea that most of us think we can multitask and get many things done, when in reality we are not good at multitasking and we are actually getting less done due to our lack of focus.

Use Appropriate Mediums

  • Use professional judgment when determining the appropriate medium for communication. Besides email, there are chat, face-to-face, phone, and text.
  • Switch to another means of communication when the number of emails in a conversation has been excessive (3 message rule), if the email would be too long, or if you need an immediate response.