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5 simple boundaries for email

Last updated on 
August 11, 2020

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Despite a multitude of new communication platforms and technologies, email still rules king. But our most loved tool also has unrivaled power to harm us – to disrupt our focus, create stress and anxiety, and blur the line between work and downtime. To keep email useful, we need to ensure we use it actively and with intention. Banning out-of-hours email outright may not be the answer, but there are other boundaries you can set to keep your attachment healthy. Here are just five of the best we’ve discovered so far.

Our complex relationship with email

According to new research, 3.9 billion of us worldwide are active email users – a number that is set to increase by 3% annually over the next three years. Together, we send 246.5 billion emails each day, with 23% of each day being spent on checking, reading and replying to them. Clearly, we have a pretty serious email habit. But at what point does “habit” become “unhealthy attachment”?

Beyond the confines of professional time, email has worked its way into our personal lives, with alarming consequences for our wellbeing. Approximately 82% of us check our emails outside of normal working hours – with 1 in 3 checking email at least once every hour, even when we’re not working.

Culturally, it’s immediacy has engendered instant availability, causing us to reply to emails the moment they arrive and continually check our inbox throughout the day. And that’s not to say what we’re doing is actually productive – as a tool, email perpetually breaks our focus, pulls us away from high-priority work, pushes unplanned tasks into our day, and raises questions that turn over in our heads until we reply.

To counter this trend, many companies have tried to introduce out-of-hours email bans. But the state of our attachment to email has actually made such policies unadvisable – if not downright irresponsible. The anxiety and stress created by being “disconnected” – of creating an unmanageable backlog, of missing a critical communication, of falling behind – has made it preferable to let employees continue to check emails outside of work.

So, what’s the solution? How can we keep our use of email healthy and productive?

5 healthy boundaries for email

Perhaps the biggest issue with email is that our relationship is passive: we respond, we react, we get sucked in. We aren’t actively in control, we don’t set the rules for our interaction, we don’t turn to email with intention. But to keep email productive, that’s precisely what we need to start doing.

Email as a tool doesn’t communicate those boundaries – it’s up to us as individuals to define our own healthy limits. Here are just a few boundaries for email that don’t involve an outright ban to get you started.

1. Master your email notifications

Pings, mobile pushes, flashing tabs, desktop sliders – these email notifications immediately undo the best laid plans. If you know there’s a new email waiting for you, it’s nearly impossible to give the task you’re working on your full attention. What if it’s urgent? Is it a response you’ve been waiting for? I wonder who it’s from! A single notification and set off all these distracting speculations in your head until you go into your inbox and look at what’s there.

To be intentional about email, you need to be able to control when you want to let notifications in. Learn about the notification settings available to you and update them across desktop, mobile and web app versions of your email provider. It’s essential to protect you from being perpetually distracted and derailed throughout the day.

2. Set availability hours

Checking email once every hour throughout the day clearly isn’t productive – and taking that compulsion home with me isn’t healthy. But unless you manage other people’s expectations of when they can communicate with you and expect a response, you’ll continue to feel a pressure to respond immediately to new emails.

It’s up to you to set your own communication guidelines – specify when you’ll be available on email, and what your typical reply time is. Once people are aware you’re not someone who has their inbox open every hour of the day, they’ll adjust their expectations – and this usually means the number of emails you’ll receive will drop.

3. Have inbox check-in times

Response expectation times sorted, setting inbox check-in times can help those who still feel anxious at not knowing what’s waiting for them. By setting aside specific times of the day to check emails, you’ll be more focused and efficient, and have the mental peace of mind needed to focus on your work.

Be strict with yourself – try and limit inbox check-ins to twice a day (perhaps once in the morning when you first sit down to work and once in the afternoon, either after lunch or mid-afternoon. It should help you cap incessant context switching, and limit the potential distraction of new problems to solve.

4. Don’t reply to everything

We all like to be polite, but not every email requires a response. The expectation that we have to confirm receipt of all emails by sending, at the least, one word replies like “OK” or “Gotcha!” is silly. Not all communications you receive are even appropriate for the formality of email, so before you click ‘reply’ consider if the email is actually the best channel for dealing with an issue. It might be better to save it for a group discussion or a stand-up meeting.

Set expectations for this by using your social media or contact page to let people know which emails will be replied to. Don’t want uninvited requests? Don’t reply to them. If there’s no important purpose to your reply, don’t send it. Just because other people like to use email as a stream-of-consciousness communication device doesn’t mean you have to.

5. Monitor your relationship with email

Longer-term, you can’t be certain of how you actually use email – and whether you’re using it more productively – without actually monitoring it. Setting boundaries means recognizing your behaviors – from how much time you spend in total each day on email, to when and how often you check it. Tracking your email usage is also useful for spotting where unplanned or low-priority tasks work their way into your schedule.

The whole process of doing this is painless – an automatic time tracking app can capture all your email activity for you throughout the day. You can review it in a private timeline, or even use intelligent tags to pull it out and represent the proportion of your work that is spent on email. With a clear picture of your email usage, you can monitor how you use it over time and see where you need to make changes. Useful for checking your new email boundaries are actually working, too!


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