How I Got Over Email Anxiety Part 1: The Source

The true source of our love-hate relationship with email is that we treat it like a task when it’s actually a tool. We cede control of our workday—and our to-do lists—to the dictates of others in pursuit of a mirage called “inbox zero.”

– Jocelyn K. Glei in Unsubscribe

I celebrated my 22nd birthday by not responding to emails. Or, more accurately, by trying not to feel guilty for not responding to emails. For years, I had an extremely unhealthy relationship with emails. They made me feel anxious and overwhelmed. I lost sleep over them.

Being unresponsive felt like being MIA at work. Replying late felt like missing your deadlines. I did a lot of overthinking about how best to send a cold email or to respond. Sometimes, I put them off for so long until I forgot about them—and felt embarrassed when someone would follow up with me. The emails I had yet to respond to loomed heavy at the back of my mind—like an urgent task that I was avoiding. I felt like I wasn’t on top of things.

Objectively, I knew it was simple: just reply! But that’s the whole point of feeling overwhelmed. You freeze. You feel paralyzed.

While I was avoiding emails during my birthday, I came across Jocelyn K. Glei’s book: Unsubscribe. After reading it and finding a system that works for me, I never felt overwhelmed or anxious because of emails ever again! Here’s a summary of what I learned.

Why Email Is So Addictive: We’re Just Like Rats

Back in the 1930’s, psychologist B. F. Skinner wanted to see what effect different kinds of positive reinforcements like food pellets and negative reinforcements like electric shocks would have on the animals. First, he experimented with putting the rats on a fixed schedule of behavior reinforcement. For instance, if the rat pressed the lever inside the box, it would receive a food pellet. It continued pressing the lever, every hundredth time the rat would receive another pellet. Press the lever 100 times, get a reward—that was the system. But for the variable schedule, the rat didn’t know when the reward was coming. It might have to press the lever 20 times to get a pellet, or it might have to press the lever 200 times to get a pellet. The system was random, and the rat could never know exactly when the reward was coming.

– pp. 5-8 in Jocelyn K. Glei’s Unsubscribe

The rats were more motivated when they were on the variable schedule. Behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely explains that email is a “near-perfect random rewards system.” Glei explained that most of the time, when we check our emails, we see “disappointing” or “bothersome” things like tasks from our bosses, complaints from our clients, et cetera. Very rarely do we get emails that bring us good news. “It’s those random rewards, mixed in with all the mind-numbing updates and irksome requests, that we find so addictive.”

Why Inbox Zero (A Mirage) Is Irresistible: The Progress Paradox

This is the progress paradox: by dint of technology, it’s easy to see our progress when we’re doing relatively short-term tasks, while it’s quite difficult to see our progress when we’re engaged in the long-term, creative projects that will ultimately have the most impact on our lives.

People have an innate desire to finish what they started. One of the things that constantly causes me guilt and stress is an unfinished job–just like emails I have yet to respond to.

Because of the book, I realized that the progress bar is an effective visual trigger that makes me want to finish what I started, even if they are menial and inconsequential: downloads, online survey forms, LinkedIn profiles, and the bold sign in my email that tells me I have 100 unread messages. Seeing the number of unread emails slowly makes me feel a sense of accomplishment. But ironically, when we do “meaningful work” like editing an article on MS Word or Gdocs, a poster on Photoshop, or a PowerPoint, we don’t see a progress bar that reminds us that we have progressed. The older versions just disappear.

To learn about practical emailing tools that helped me, click here.

This article was previously published in The Passion Project PH.

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