Have you ever been stressed at the sight of 20+ unread emails? Had a sinking feeling when you see a client email arrive at night? Or felt guilty when you think about the unanswered messages in your inbox? If so, you know what it’s like to have email anxiety.
In an accounting firm, where so much communication involves email and many issues are perceived as crises, the email anxiety challenge is even stronger.
But this anxiety is not helping your accounting firm or your client. It robs you of your best at work and at home. There is a better way. When you can manage your inbox, you can be fully present handling your email, then leave it behind.
The average office worker receives 121 emails a day. Statista predicts that by 2021, daily emails sent will reach 320 billion. This growth in email use is showing no signs of slowing down either, despite the proliferation of additional communication methods like chat tools.
Not only are people sending and receiving more emails, but those emails are taking up more mind space and more time. A study by Sleep Advisor found that 17% of people check their email as soon as they wake up. Other research shows that people spend upwards of 5 hours a day on email.
Of course, email has its benefits. And as much as any profession, accountants rely on the ability to communicate from anywhere, exchange documents quickly, and have records of client conversations. But these benefits come with drawbacks such as unrealistic expectations on yourself and from clients and bosses, taking your clients’ issues with you wherever you go (vacation-included).
There are proven tactics to help get a handle on email (such as these 10 tips to increase productivity and control your inbox), but the problem of email anxiety is bigger than this and requires a new approach l altogether.
Is it when you haven’t checked your inbox in a while and you just know things are piling up? Or when you get the 10 p.m. ping from your client? Take note of these occasions and notice anything that they have in common.
As an accountant, these feelings of email anxiety can also be seasonal. You may dread tax time because of the combination of volume and urgency in communication. By knowing where the anxiety comes from, you can take a step back and frame an appropriate game plan for the right season.
The underlying emotion behind anxiety is typically fear and when fear is acknowledged, it decreases.
So, what’s the fear around your emails actually about? Some possible examples:
I won’t get to everything on my plate
I won’t respond quickly enough and clients, my manager, my colleagues will think I’m incompetent
There aren’t enough hours in the day
My clients’ or manager’s anger
I don’t know the answer to what my client is asking of me
I’m not managing my team well
I’m not managing my time well
I will miss something important
The possible fears go on and on. Acknowledging what yours are and naming them is a huge first step in the right direction to email clarity.
Few of us stop to consciously think about our relationship with email. When you reach for your phone during a meeting when you’re mid-project and a client email pops up and disrupts your flow, or when it’s Sunday night and you open your inbox to a deluge of unread emails, you have a choice.
You can respond to the needy client immediately, tackle your Sunday night emails, and get ahead for tomorrow.
Or you can pause. Ask yourself how you’re feeling. Take two deep breaths and make a conscious choice as to how you want to proceed.
This puts you back in the control seat.
All the tools and email management, team dynamics tricks won’t work if you don’t know what’s driving your email anxiety. But once you start to unpack the feelings, then tactical solutions do help.
Managing expectations is critical. If you never set the expectation that you will get back to clients within 24 hours and they expect a 2-hour turnaround, you are both in for some serious frustration. If you always drop everything to respond to your manager, this becomes the new expectation.
Set clear boundaries for your personal time. It’s critical to set aside time where you shut down from work for the day. Don’t fall into the trap of being always-on. By defining the time you will intentionally devote to email, you can approach it purposefully without sacrificing your full attention when you’re outside the office.
Sometimes, email anxiety is created simply by the number of messages in the inbox. By using technology, you can keep a handle on what’s flowing into your inbox.
Out-of-office messages: If you’re in client meetings all day, use your out-of-office auto-responder to communicate that, communicate a timeline by which you’ll respond, and provide an option if the sender requires something that cannot wait (such as contact details for a colleague).
Keep marketing messages out of your inbox: Create rules so all your newsletters and other non-critical emails go into a folder and don’t disrupt your day (this is especially important if you have email notifications pop up whenever a new email comes in). Create other rules so that your biggest, most critical client emails are at the top.
Email is not a project-management tool: Remember to use email appropriately. As Duke business professor, Dorie Clark, writes: “Email wasn’t designed as a task-management or project-management application, yet many people use email for precisely those purposes.” If you’re using it for that, there are much better tools available.
Email is an essential tool for working professionals and it’s not going away any time soon. However, to maximize productivity and enjoyment in life, it’s critical to stop email from overtaking your time.
Your approach to email should be the same as anything else in life: It should be seen through the lens of your priorities. Make sure you are spending time on what matters most, and allocate manageable blocks of time for other tasks like email.
These tips will not eliminate email from your life, but with the right steps, you can gain clarity over your inbox and focus on what really matters.