Note: This article originally appeared in Emily’s Inc.com column, Own It.
During a recent lunch meeting, my friend’s phone vibrated at least half a dozen times, pulling her away from our conversation for a quick glance at her inbox. Our short time together was interrupted with apologies as the alerts continued. She admitted to being overwhelmed by email, and felt like she could never catch up, even though she was checking it throughout the day, sometimes even responding to messages in the middle of the night.
I felt her pain, as I’ve been guilty of inbox overwhelm at times, too. It’s a familiar scenario for business owners. You want to be in constant communication to keep tabs on projects, be accessible to clients and to appear “on top of it.” But in reality, you’re running ragged trying to keep up and creating a demanding, unhealthy relationship with your inbox.
Here are a few tricks to stop this cycle and gain control:
1. Stop replying to urgent emails
Urgent doesn’t necessarily mean important. It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like everything has to be addressed right now, especially when you’re managing client or customer expectations and want to be available any time your client needs you – even if you’re eating lunch or if it’s 11 p.m.
However, studies find after-hour emailing negatively impacts our emotional well-being and prevents us from being able to completely detach from work in the evenings and on the weekends.
The next time you receive a seemingly urgent email, ask yourself this question: “Will responding to this email right now change the outcome of this project?” If your answer is no, then respond when you get back to your desk or in the morning.
2. Set digital detox time
I know what you’re thinking: enough with the digital detox tip already!
But, there are reasons why this is a hot topic and entire business models are built on this idea, like Camp Grounded, a digital detox camp in California.
You don’t have to take weeks or days off, but at least set aside some time each day to keep your phone and computer out of sight. You can use an app like Focus Booster to help you track productivity so you can set boundaries between your personal time and work time that actually correlate with your habits.
Resist the urge to check email during your self-designated non-work hours. A tip to being successful at this? Keep your phone out of sight. The old “out of sight, out of mind” adage really works. Studies show it takes 21 days to form a habit, so it might be a struggle at first, but soon your new habit will be not checking your email. Schedule something else to do during your detox time to fight temptation and keep your mind and body occupied.
3. Use scheduling tools
Digital detox is important, but if you aren’t making the most of your screen time when you take it, you will likely fall back into bad habits again.
Set specific times in your day where you will be checking and answering emails. You can determine when those times are based on your personal schedule, but stick to them. When you know you only have certain times to write emails throughout the day, you’re likely to use your time more efficiently.
Take advantage of apps that allow you to schedule your emails. If you do have to catch up on emails during off hours, schedule them to send at a more appropriate time, avoiding any back and forth with clients or your team during after-hours. This helps to keep your boundaries intact. An app like Boomerang can help you with this.
Remember to distinguish between important and urgent emails, make a plan and designate specific times to be in your inbox, and don’t forget to give yourself a break and regularly detach from email! You might just find you’re a better business owner because of it.