7 Creative Tips for Managing Email and Email-Induced Anxiety


hands-545394_640Hi everyone. Happy Thanksgiving this week! You are a sexy and awesome unicorn. I’m thankful for you and all you do to make our community better. I hope that you take a well-deserved break. One that is unencumbered with the thought that while you’re spending time with your family, there are hundreds or thousands of emails in your inbox, and they multiply by the minute, each one important, and yet you continue to neglect them because you are a terrible human being and your colleagues are probably spitting in your direction when you pass them.

We as a society have a horrible relationship with emails. It is our primary means of communication with people both inside and outside our organizations, and yet it is probably one of our biggest sources of stress.

The relative efficiency of email makes it ironically inefficient, because more people are now going to use it, a phenomenon that may be explained by the Efficiency, or Jevons, Paradox. Compounding the situation is The Competency Dilemma: The more competent you are, the more work you get.  Applied to emails, this means that the faster and better you are at responding to emails, the more emails you are going to receive

This is why I am now terrified of opening my inbox. As of this moment, it has 3,255 unread messages, and only about 600 of those are from the Game of Thrones discussion forum. Each day, I get about 100 to 150 new emails. It’s become like a Twitter feed, where if I don’t see an email right away, it gets pushed down by newer messages. On some days, I feel like I am a professional emailer—a sexy vegan Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill only for the rock to multiply into 100 rocks, and then an eagle swoops down and devours his liver, which grows back every night. Or something. I didn’t do so well in Greek Mythology. 

If you are experiencing Email-Induced Anxiety (EIA), you are not alone. In fact, here is an article about it, with some useful tips. And here is the Email Charter, which is pretty awesome, spelling out ten mutual agreements that will help reduce emails in general, so check it out if you haven’t.

Even with the Charter, though, email is not going to go away anytime soon, we need to come up with some creative solutions in order to not feel like human garbage every time we confront our inboxes. Here are some tips below, compiled from colleagues’ suggestions, as well as from my own experience:

7 Creative Tips for Managing Email and Email-Induced Anxiety

  1. unroll.me: This website will find all the crap you’re subscribed to, list them all out, and allow you to unsubscribe from them and consolidate the oneemail-606166_1920s you want to keep into one single daily digest. However, like other free services, how it works is slightly mysterious, so do some research before signing up.
  2. Put up a signature line to warn people that it might take you a while to respond, or that your response may be short. In my emails, for example, I have a signature that says, “Due to the high volume of emails, Vu’s responses may be terse. Please ignore the tone and assume that he thinks you are an awesome unicorn. Because you are!” Seriously, that’s what I have. Feel free to use it.
  3. Set up an auto-response that says, “Hi, thank you for emailing me. Since I get so many emails, I have to prioritize donors and funders first. If this is an urgent matter, please ensure you are either a donor or funder.”
  4. Have an intern or volunteer answer your emails for you. In order to not rouse suspicion, they must be able to adopt your mannerisms. One practicum student told me, “It’s easy to pretend to be you. I’ll just use ‘awesome’ and ‘dude’ a lot, and occasionally throw in obscure analogies.” It was an awesome partnership; we were like kale and pineapple in a green smoothie.
  5. Pick up the telephone and make a talk-call. Before we all got so dependent on emails, people used to talk to each other in real time through their phones. This is not a very common or easy thing to do nowadays, but talk-calls can be very effective. It’s definitely a built-in app on your smart phone so you don’t need to download anything.
  6. Become less competent in your work. As stated above, being competent will only guarantee that people will email you to ask you to do stuff. You can avoid that by decreasing competency. However, do it gradually over time. If you become incompetent too suddenly, your coworkers will send you concerned emails asking if you’re OK.
  7. Declare Email Bankruptcy, delete all your emails, then get a fake identity and flee the country. In a few years, when things have died down, you can return to rebuild your life.

Even if you follow all the above tips, though, it’s likely that you’ll still face EIA. Seeking relief, I talked to a wise ED colleague who said, “I’ve noticed people keep apologizing in their email responses for responding so late. We need to stop apologizing. We didn’t ask people to send us a billion emails.” Using that epiphany, I’ve crafted the Email Adequacy Mantra, which will be a companion to the Nonprofit Unicorn’s Mantra (found at the bottom of this post). Read this each day before and after work. I hope it helps you feel better about the gift and curse that is email. 

The Email Adequacy Mantra:

amazing-736881_1280I am a nonprofit unicorn. I work each day to make the world better. I get a lot of emails. I’ll do my best to respond in a timely and thoughtful matter, but I never asked most people to email me. I will prioritize the emails that will help advance my organization’s mission and not feel guilty for responding to unsolicited emails days or even weeks later. When I am behind on my emails, with no hope of ever catching up, I am still a decent human being. Even when important messages fall off my radar, I am still a good person. I will strive for email adequacy, not email perfection, and will not feel like crap if I take a break once a while from obsessively checking my emails. I will extend the same thoughtful considerations to others, understanding that they too are probably stressed as hell by their inboxes. I am an awesome and sexy nonprofit unicorn.

By the way, I’ll be in New York City on 12/4 and hope to get a beer with local unicorns around 6pm, probably at Jimmy’s No. 43. This is completely informal. If you’re in town that evening and want to hang out, send me an email at nonprofitwithballs@gmail.com (yeah, I’m serious; I may not respond for weeks, though). 

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11 thoughts on “7 Creative Tips for Managing Email and Email-Induced Anxiety

  1. willworktomorrow

    I had 6,500 unread emails in my Inbox 3 years ago, but then I did the free program at Revive My Inbox and I’ve been at zero or close every since. It’s easier to use if you’re on gmail (both my personal and professional emails go through gmail) and then add on Boomerang, which allows you to manage emails so much more efficiently. I’m a little bit evangelical about this because it has changed my life, but wow, it really really has.

  2. Alison Alfonzo Pence

    I have 117,355 unopened emails in my personal email inbox. I plan to close the account on December 1. I’ve started a new email account and I have 9 unopened emails. I think I’m doing well!

  3. Maggie Dennis

    When I started my career in the government sector, I was fortunate to have been trained by someone who remembered taking the civil service exam and considered her self to be a civil servant. One of the lessons – respond to emails within 24 hours, even if only to say, “I got your message and I’m looking into it. I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.” I still follow this mantra 25 years later, and it serves me well as a nonprofit consultant with my clients (and I keep my inbox under 15 emails, too). That said, I just tried Unroll.Me and was pleased to unsubscribe from half of my 76 subcriptions in just minutes! Thanks!

  4. Amy

    Thank you! I needed to read this today. And instead of answering emails I formatted The Email Adequacy Mantra into something I’ll enjoy looking at on my bulletin board whenever needed.

  5. naturegirl

    Very timely (even if my response is not). Was just thinking–again–about the overabundance of emails I receive. Will try Unroll.Me and remember that I’m smart enough, I’m good enough, and, gosh darn it, people like me!

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