Your Email is a Jail Sentence (Here’s Your Get Out of Jail Free Card)

Email is like a jail

It’d been a long week, and I took Friday afternoon off.

I was relaxing at a friend’s house when an urgent work email came across my blackberry.

When I tried to respond, I received that dreaded email response that meant I had to go back to the office to address the issue.

“Your mailbox has exceeded its capacity, and you will be unable to send further emails until you free-up additional space.”


“We’re going to lock your email up and throw away the keys until you shape-up and clean-up your email inbox, Buster.

Have a nice day!”

I’d landed in email jail.

Email is Like Jail

Email is a lot like jail:

  • It’s makes you feel trapped.
  • It restricts your freedom.
  • It forces to you to conform.
  • It’s got consequences if you don’t respond.
  • It manages you in a cold, ruthless way.

Just like in jail, to email you’re just another number and it doesn’t care.  (Tweet This)

Sounding stressful, enough?

Email is Scientifically Proven to Stress you Out

Email Stress

Email jail is just one of the stressful things about email.

A recent study by a joint UC-Irvine and U.S. Army research team shows how email impacts your stress levels.

They isolated one group of workers from email for several days and gave the other full inbox access.

They found that people with email access switched windows an average of 37 times per hour.

While those without email changed screens only half as often – about 18 times in an hour.

It’s even more powerful that the employees with inbox access had steady “high alert” heart rates and higher cortisol levels, which is a hormone linked to stress and obesity.

The other group with no-email  reported feeling more relaxed, spending less time switching between tasks, and focusing on completing individual jobs and assignments.

Email makes you Slow and Kills your Productivity

Overwhelmed by email

It seems counter intuitive but email actually makes you slower and negatively impacts your productivity.

Think about how distracting and varied all the emails pouring in can be.  The email firehose can cause you to hastily move onto the next task before you’ve effectively wrapped up what you’re working on.

Your mind is just not made to shift gears that quickly.

Loughborough University found that email interruption extends tasks a third longer to close out task than they would take otherwise.

Think about how that impacts your productivity?

I even ran across an older study from the University of Glasgow that shows it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after email interruption.

So people who check their email every five minutes waste 8 hours and 30 minutes per week figuring out what they were doing moments before. (Tweet This)

Seven Strategies to Reduce your Email Stress (and Get Out of Email Jail)

The good news is that by developing a proactive strategy to approach your email it be a much less stressful experience.

The next time you get stuck in email jail and your frustration level starts to rise try implementing one of the following strategies to reduce your stress level.

  1. Resist the Urge – Avoid checking your email first thing when you wake-up and before you go to bed.  When you check it first thing, you’ve just lost control of your day and when you check it last you’ve lost control of your own peaceful night’s sleep.
  2. Go on an Email Vacation on the Job – Show up at work and take off a few hours from email all together.  Put your out of office assistant on and let people know that you’ll be responding later. Notice how much more focus you have and how much less stress you experience when you’re not swapping screens to check email.
  3. Protect your Email Address – Often times the most stressful part of email is the sheer volume.  Just seeing a hundred emails in your inbox is daunting.  Be selective about giving out your email address including your business card that has your email address on it. Then unsubscribe to junk lists you end up on (versus just deleting and waiting for the next one to hit). It takes just a minute more to unsubscribe but you’ll avoid all the distracting headlines and clutter over the long haul.
  4. Draft an Angry Response – Every single person at the office receives emails that trigger anger.  When this happens to you, try immediately drafting the angriest response you can….and stop short of sending it. Save it as an email draft. Put it aside for 24 hours then come back to it.  You’ll get the benefit of venting, and you’ll usually find several kernels in your response that you can use but then draft it in a more thoughtful way.
  5. Email to End the Conversation –  You probably realize that email creates more email.  The twist is to be mindful of this when you construct an email. If your email doesn’t require a response you can use FYI or “does not require a response” at the bottom. If it does require a response then list out 3 options and ask them to respond with 1,2,3, or a phone call. This will relieve the other party and keep your inbox cleaner.
  6. Disable Auto Send/Receive – It can be extremely stressful and distracting to receive emails in real time.  Try turning off your automatic send/receive, so they only time you receive email is when you check it manually.  Not only will you feel more in control, people will stop assuming that the second you receive an email you will respond.  Here is a nice 3-step reference for turning it off.
  7. Take Email Off Your Phone – This is is by far the edgiest on this list, and it makes most people extremely uncomfortable.  By taking email off your phone you’ll be less stressed and distracted when you’re in meetings, with your family, and in your car.  You’ll only be using your phone to text and actually talk to people.  If you want an intermediate step, remove your email icon from the front screen of your phone.  With the extra step to get to your email, you’ll be less likely to check it.

So which of the above “get out of jail” email strategies resonate most for you?

What other tips do you find helpful?

Please your share your ideas for handling email stress in the comments below.



PS:  To get a free weekly newsletter full of stress reducing ideas, put your email address here.  Note that it will not fill up your inbox (I don’t send attachments), and I protect your email address by not giving it to anyone.


  • CMilesFitz

    Reply Reply July 4, 2012

    Completely agree with this. Our company has high email SLA requirement, however inevitably this increases stress, lowers productivity and distracts employees from true “emergencies”. Using IM for quick questions and the cell phone for true escalations is a dying art form that we’re trying to revive. In the meanwhile, at least sticking to the “no more than 3 responses to a thread” rule can help slow down the snowball.

    • benfanning

      Reply Reply July 5, 2012

      C, Thanks for sharing your tips. I can definitely see how an organization’s email policy could create stress.

  • Sarah Swingle

    Reply Reply July 6, 2012

    I LOVE this post. I tried it out yesterday at work by not keeping my email open while I worked on other projects. I got so much done! Thanks for the great advice!

    • benfanning

      Reply Reply July 6, 2012

      Congrats, Sarah. It’s fantastic that you got great results on the first go around!

  • Meira Eliot

    Reply Reply August 24, 2012

    I totally agree about email tyranny. I have switched off email from my phone completely. I still check emails on my laptop way too often, but I`m working on a strategy. The idea about NOT checking first thing in the morning will take some emotional discipline to implement I guess, but I can see it will be worth it!

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