The zen and the art of email management

As technology becomes ever more integral to people’s personal and professional lives, their ability to use and manage that technology becomes increasingly important to their well-being.

To express that idea, web developer and entrepreneur Gavin O’Carroll has coined the phrase ‘digital health’.

“Digital health,” he explains, “is a measure of the positive or negative relationship we have with the technology digital we use in our work and in our life.”

As that implies, while technology can help people to organise their lives and improve their productivity, it can also create stress and anxiety.

O’Carroll runs the Digital Health Service to help businesses and individuals minimise the negative impact of technology. The worst offender, he reports, is email.

“Our inboxes are effectively a list of thousands of promises to other people,” he says. “We feel good when we answer them, but if we don’t they become a nagging anxiety, a broken promise, at the back of minds.”

Poor email management can therefore translate into a very real sense of stress, O’Carroll says. Indeed, research published last year by the University of Computing Science found email to be the most stress-inducing application.

Part of the problem is that many people do not know how to use email properly, O’Carroll argues. But there are simple ways that the stress of email can be relieved.

One technique, which O’Carroll has implemented himself, is to limit email checking to two short sessions a day. “On my emails it says that I will only check my inbox at midday and 4pm, and that if anyone needs me urgently, they should telephone,” he explains.

“I don’t receive any more phone calls than I used to, and it frees up the whole day to focus,” he says.

Other tips include explaining conditional courses of action in emails (“Do you have the report? If not please contact marketing”), improving the subject lines in emails and, of course, using the telephone more.

But an easy first step is to acknowledge the anxiety an email can cause. “If we are aware that when we send an email we might be causing the recipient stress, we might be more considerate,” says O’Carroll.

Further reading

Email most stressful app Repeatedly interrupting work in order to check email erodes worker productivity

Productivity drain Once lauded as the all-time ‘killer app’ of modern IT, email now poses a threat to business productivity

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Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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