You Got Mail…So What?

Stanley works from home since COVID-19. Before the shutdown, he worked from his office a few days a week and traveled out of town for conferences. As a substitute for not visiting an office and the ban on large group gatherings, Stanley works from his home computer for several hours a day. His staff and colleagues engage in online webinars to ensure the business runs productively.

Stanley’s company is in the enviable position of experiencing an unexpected massive uptick in sales. Their product line includes essential items such as hand sanitizer and wipes. Current staff barely keeps up with the new workloads and timelines. The CEO has not made new hires – it’s impossible to calculate if the sudden sales explosion will stay at this level post-COVID.

After months of non-stop work and prolonged computer time, Stanley crashes. His brain struggles to focus. Anxiety mounts as emails accumulate. Stanley can’t keep up. He’s on edge his co-workers will judge him non-responsive if he doesn’t answer an email within the hour.

Stanley contemplates leaving this stressful situation. Yet the thought of starting a new job is overwhelming. Where could he go? Jobs are being eliminated right and left. He’s fortunate to have this “high-level problem.”

During the up-shift in work demands, Stanley compulsively checks e-messages. If unable to sleep, he checks email. If he’s attending a virtual meeting, he checks email. If he’s waiting in line, he checks email. A red light is flashing ….. compulsive email checking alert!

Stanley’s preoccupation has evolved into major procrastination and stress. Two unrelated events lead Stanley to a breaking point: a friend’s comment and his recent weight gain.

“Obsessive email checking means you jump ship from what’s at hand. Multi-tasking zaps productivity and harms the brain. Serious distraction and efficiency loss results from an obsession with non-stop email check-ins.”

While walking in the park with a close friend, Stanley checks “work messages.” His friend asks: “Stanley, why are you on the phone? Aren’t we here to spend quality time?” Stanley shuts down his phone, irked that his friend has legitimately called him out.

Although accustomed to exercising, Stanley now forgoes a regular workout. Upon stepping on the scale, Stanley fumes and curses at the pandemic for causing his midriff tire.

Most people don’t recognize e-mail checking as a genuine addiction. Yet if we apply this obsessive habit to eating candy, how many sweets might we consume a day? Might this level of snacking lead to other problems such as cavities, heart disease, and chronic inflammation?

Stanley meets with a wellness coach. He describes his work stressors and longing for another line of work. During the meeting his email pings. His phone rings. Facebook messenger dings. Unable to resist interruptions, Stanley checks his phone in spite of showcasing his out-of-control habits to a health professional.

Stanley’s coach assigns homework. Coach ignores Stanley’s confession of a friend’s hurtful comment and his recent weight gain. What Stanley hears from Coach ignites even more stress: Stanley, you are hooked on email. You need to figure out why. In disbelief that email checking could be problematic, Stanley nonetheless decides to dig deeper.

In the next session, Stanley admits he is powerless to stop viewing and answering emails. He admits that he wakes up and the first thing he checks is email. Before bed, Stanley checks his phone to make sure a new work task hasn’t appeared. While working on reports and figures, Stanley leaves his email open between projects. The thought is that time away from his inbox translates into spiraling unanswered email pile up.

Is it conceivable his life goal has evolved into an emotional demand to reach Zero Inbox?

Once Stanley becomes aware that email jeopardizes his self-care, he is ready to take action.


Stanley’s 4-step plan:

  1. Start and end the day with an intentional ritual vs. non-thinking habit. Stanley returns to his 30-minute morning workout: running outside or lifting weights. This pumps up his endorphins and generates good vibes. At bedtime, he intentionally leaves his phone downstairs. Before sleep, he closes his eyes and taps into his imagination. What does his next job look like? Where does he see himself next year?
  2. Turn off incoming mail buzzes or verbal cues. It is important to prevent the tempting distraction of automatic notifications of new messages. Stanley sees that these external signals control his behavior. He wants to make better choices. He intends to take charge of his life and his email.
  3. Shut down distractions and focuses on tasks at hand. Checking email reflexively and automatically compromises focus, productivity, and enjoyment of other work activities. Email is a productive tool. It should not be allowed to become a break excuse. Productivity trumps obsession. Happiness trumps feeling stressed-out. Freedom trumps being triggered. Today Stanley responds to email without subconsciously seeing it as a reward or form of relaxation. He responds to messages a few times a day instead of compulsively every five minutes.
  4. Imagine a day with an email system vs. allowing himself to be triggered. By scheduling and organizing email replies, Stanley sees the world doesn’t end when he doesn’t live by email alerts. His stress levels go down because he values wellness over distraction. Refuses to be held hostage by impulse. Honors his commitments and finds a healthy flow between work and leisure.

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