Why we should all be practicing 'inbox mindfulness' to reduce stress at work

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By Liz Connor

We all have that friend who never lets their phone battery get below
70%, has a 10-year savings plan and - most frustratingly of all - seems
to always be on top of their inbox flow, with their important emails
filed away in neatly organised folders.

If you're anything like me though, your desk is littered with empty
coffee cups, your clothes are haphazardly strewn around your bedroom and
your inbox can be described as 'organised chaos' at best. And that's OK;
Albert Einstein was famously messy, and recent studies have found that
people with disorderly desks tend to be more creative on the whole.

What's not OK though, is getting into work and having a mini-meltdown
over the number of unread emails in your inbox, when you've got a whole
list of other things to be getting on with.

Unread emails equate to insidious clutter on the brain, and just like
working in an unclean space, having the spectre of hundreds (or even
thousands) of unanswered requests can really start to take its mental
toll. When I've paid my bills, cleaned my room, banked eight hours
sleep, worked out and drank a small lido's-worth of water, I feel so
much more prepared to take on the day - and the same goes for the state
of my Outlook account.

That's why we should all be practising a thing I've discovered called
'inbox mindfulness'. It sounds like an oxymoron - surely being connected
to tech is the opposite of being mindful? But it's really not. Because
being conscious about the fact an out-of-control Hotmail account can
leave you feeling frazzled is always a good thing. Plus, taking
manageable steps to fix it can help you to live more peacefully in the
present moment.

It's not about checking your emails 24/7 or staying constantly connected
to work. It's about recognising that emails can trigger stress, which
causes up to 40% of all workplace illnesses (so says an HSE report), and
therefore, a certain proportion of your working day should be spent
keeping your emails in a healthy state.

Thankfully, there are loads of easy tips and tricks that can help you
achieve digital nirvana. Here are just a few I've found helpful...

1. Go through your emails first thing in the morning

It sounds obvious, but there are mornings where I'm so busy with other
things that I only have the chance to do a quick scan of my inbox for
the important stuff, and then I don't get around to looking at my emails
properly until lunchtime.

This isn't great, because I constantly have the niggling feeling that
I've missed something important. Now I've made it a rule to set aside at
least 20 minutes each morning to click through everything that's come
in, before I move on to any other tasks. If your inbox regularly fills
you with trepidation, make a relaxing playlist, brew a calming herbal
tea and tackle it before anything else - email by email.

2. Clear out the junk

Mass delete any emails you know you don't need, like notifications from
social media or newsletters from retailers. The easiest way to do this
is by searching your inbox for common senders or subject lines (for
example: Pinterest notifications), highlighting and deleting them all at
once.

3. Get a nice folder system going

Every organised inbox owner will have one thing in common - they file
away their emails in folders. It's a really simple thing to do, but it
makes your inbox so much more user-friendly.

Every job will have different folder needs, but I've found it's always
helpful to have one for account login information. I can't tell you how
much time I've wasted searching for software passwords floating around
in my general email flow.

4. Get into the habit of deleting unwanted emails

I used to keep every email I received, but this is such a drain on your
storage, can cause your computer to crash and makes searching for
important emails more cumbersome. Now every time I get an email that I
know I won't need in the future, it goes straight into the bin, Marie
Kondo-style.

5. ...And archiving any you may need in the distant future

If you've finished with an email, but you're not sure if you'll need it
later on, archive it instead of deleting it (you can normally do this by
right clicking on the email and selecting 'Archive'). This removes it
from your inbox pane but keeps it in the system, should you ever need to
revisit it in the future.

6. Colour categorise

This is a bit more fiddly to do but so worth it in the long-run.
Categories can help to organise the emails in your inbox, so you can
tell what's still pending and what's completed. You basically choose a
colour to represent a different category - I tend to use red for emails
that 'need a response' and blue for emails that are 'done'.

Once you've added the colour categories (again, usually a right-click
job), you can get an overview of which emails you still need to focus
on. You can also use categories to sort through your emails. So, for
example, if you spend one day a week filing your emails, you can quickly
locate all the 'done' emails, and then move them to their corresponding
folders.

7. Unsubscribe from annoying promotional emails in one fell swoop

New GDPR regulations that came into effect this year mean most of us
have said goodbye to spammy prize-draw offers and '50% off' sale emails
from retailers. But if you've accidentally opted in to a few, Unlistr
lets you mass unsubscribe from annoying promotional emails that you
might have unwittingly signed up to. It basically finds all your email
subscriptions and allows you to easily opt out of them on iOS, Android
or in Outlook, rather than trawling through them all individually.

8. Set up some rules

If you use Outlook, there's a tool called 'Rules' that can make emails
auto-filter into a folder. Once you set up a rule, any new messages that
arrive to your inbox will be taken care of as per the rules you've
created for yourself. This is particularly handy if you get lots of
emails on a daily basis.

For instance, you could have emails from your boss automatically moved
into an 'urgently reply' folder, while newsletter and offer emails you
may want to read, but not right away, can be funnelled into a 'read
later' folder. Simply setting up a few rules can help make your inbox
look so much less intimidating on first open.

9. Finally, be real with your holiday time

Part of being mindful with your inbox is in setting healthy expectations
of how often you're going to access it. If you're going on holiday, and
if it's reasonable to do so, let your team know you won't be opening
your work emails, otherwise you won't properly unplug and unwind.

Out Of Office messages are usually short and polite, but there's no
reason why you can't use them to your benefit. Let people know to email
you again on the Monday when you're back in the office if it's urgent,
otherwise their email will be deleted.

It's a bit of a brutal approach, but imagine how much less apocalyptic
the first day back in the office would feel without a mountain of unread
emails to get through.

Inbox zen? With a few easy tweaks and a bit more honesty, it's totally
achievable.

Catherine Devane