I find myself buried in email from time to time. In the past, when I finally took the time to dig myself out from under my backlog, I felt anxious or overwhelmed because it felt like new, potentially-urgent email kept flooding in while I was trying to catch up. This reminded me of my bad old days as a programmer, when bugs (as I called them then) seemed to flow in as quickly as I thought I was fixing them. The boat always feels like it's at the point of sinking. After experiencing this a few times, the thought of trying to swim against this tidal wave of new email worsened my email-related anxiety, encouraging me to delay opening my email client even further, and creating a positive feedback loop of pain and suffering.
Fortunately, I found a simple microtechnique that helps me, so I hope it helps you. It seems so obvious to me that I can't believe I hadn't thought of it before. Schedule sending your outgoing email after you expect to finish processing email for the day. Stupidly simple and potentially very effective.
The reasoning seems pretty solid to me. When I feel anxious about dealing with email, I need every trick to avoid making it worse while I process my inbox, because I need to process my inbox. More email flowing into my inbox intensifies the anxiety. Processing my inbox leads to replying to email, which leads to more email flowing into my inbox, which intensifies the anxiety. Since I can't stop the flow of new email to my inbox—the thought of all that unprocessed email, lost opportunities, and angry correspondents led to most of the anxiety I'm feeling right now—if I can slow it down or delay it, then that ought to help. And it does.
For example, today I knew that I would certainly stop processing email by 16:00 (4:00 PM, if you prefer), so when I replied to an email at 11:00 this morning, I scheduled the reply for 16:00, when I knew I'd no longer be monitoring my inbox. I could scheduled it for even later, but 16:00 was "later enough".
What If Things Need to Happen Right Now?!
You might worry about intentionally replying later than you're able to. If you do, then I highly recommend reading the Julie Morgenstern book I've listed in the references section below. Even if this doesn't concern you, sometimes you feel like you really do need to reply right away or that you really do need a reply back right away. For most emails, you have this wrong. Most people do. If there is a matter of such urgency, then perhaps you shouldn't handle it by email, anyway, but rather by a more-immediate channel, like text messages or—dare I say it—a phone call. If it can wait an hour or two, then it can probably wait a day.
Now, of course, you will have some exceptions. If something really does need to happen in the next hour or two and email is fast enough, then send the reply now. I'm not suggesting that you pretend that truly urgent work isn't. On the other hand, a significant number of people treat email with false urgency, and this tendency acts as one of the forces that leads to the kind of email-related anxiety that provides the motivation for this little article. Read the John Kotter book to which I refer below for a deeper discussion of urgency, real and imagined.
Moreover, your anxiety is probably the bottleneck here, delaying all work including dealing with this seemingly-truly-urgent email. If you feel anxious about email, then you probably feel anxious about the in-flow of all requests to do any kind of work. Slowing down that flow seems awfully likely to help you while you look for ways to deal with the deeper sources of anxiety. If you got an instant reply from your correspondent, would you follow up on it right away? If their reply is simply going to sit in your inbox, while you summon the energy to look at it, then you can feel free to delay their opportunity to respond a little. This can help give you the mental space to process more of your inbox.
Sorry, I don't have any good tips for dealing with the deeper anxiety. If I did, then I'd be too busy writing a book about it to publish this article. What ideas do you have?
You can find a variety of tools out there to "improve email productivity". (I don't actually want to improve email productivity, but if you don't use those keywords in searching, then you won't find tools like Boomerang for GMail.) I happen to use Boomerang for GMail, which includes a "Send Later" feature.
Boomerang for GMail does many more things than merely scheduling emails to send later, so if you use GMail, then I recommend giving it a try. The full feature list requires giving them money, and I'd really appreciate it if you click my super-fantastic referral link in order to sign up.
...But (Maybe) Compose Now
When you identify email to respond to that doesn't need an immediate response, you could also simply process it later. This adds administrative cost (both practical and emotional) that might or might not be worth it. When in doubt, I go back to The Two-Minute Rule. (See the references for more.) If I can compose my response in two minutes, because I know exactly what I need to say, then I'd rather do that right now and get it out of my head. This avoids the costs associated with task-switching. I find that when I can Compose Now, but Send Later, I get the best of both worlds: I get to put the email out of my mind completely while I process the remaining email in my inbox, confident that I won't have to deal with that issue again until (typically) tomorrow at the earliest. Not having the issue hanging over my head helps me focus better on whatever other undiscovered monsters lie in wait in my inbox.
Unleash the calming power of "Send Later" today. I hope it makes you feel better.
Julie Morgenstern, Never Check Email in the Morning. One of the less-frequently-mentioned personal productivity books that influenced me a lot, notably for helping me feel more comfortable sacrificing so-called "responsiveness" for essential sanity. It's really OK to take some time to respond!
John Kotter, A Sense of Urgency. Do you fall prey to "false urgency"? Read this book now. (Well, that's more false urgency. Buy this book now and read it relatively soon.)
J. B. Rainsberger, "The Two-Minute Rule". When a request for work finds you, if you can complete it in two minutes, then do it now; otherwise, schedule it for later.