Is email taking over your life?
A cluttered inbox can lead to a cluttered brain. But there are ways to manage your email
There are two types of people in the world: those who have a clean and organised inbox, and those who have 5,453 unread emails in theirs. You can tell the latter camp from the tell-tale icon on their smartphones, with an unfeasibly large number perched on their mail icon, giving the game away.
Me, I'm in the former camp, but that brings problems of its own. I spend plenty of time throughout the day keeping guard of my inbox, lest I miss an 'important' email. I panic if I return to my computer and there are six emails waiting to be answered.
And I'm not alone; according to research by the McKinsey Global Institute, the average office worker spends almost two-and-a-half hours tending to their inbox a day; almost 28pc of the time they are at work.
Other research states that of the 200 emails the average employee receives a day, 36 are spam, 144 are irrelevant and 20 are useful.
There's no doubting that the digital revolution was a good thing for our working lives; technology has helped to grease the wheels of commerce. But email is becoming less a wonder invention that makes our lives easier and more a drag of the modern age. Things have reached even more fretful heights of late; add Facebook/Twitter notification emails, spam, mailing list fluff and cc-ing into the mix, and email starts to move past our eyes at a rate of knots.
"I think it's a mixture of needing to stay in control in a world that is increasingly out of our control," asserts Lorna McDowell, CEO of organisational analysts Xenergie, referring to why some might check their email incessantly.
"The forces of evolution, largely driven by technology and how we use our planet, are so strong that we are all struggling to keep up. Therefore, it's easier to distract ourselves by believing we have some kind of control.
"What is lacking is focus. There is a difference between focus and control. Checking emails is the antithesis of focus, they take us away from what we really should attend to if we sit still for long enough to challenge ourselves.
"(People) are swimming in a sea of short-term priorities, goals and urgencies but are not looking at where they are trying to swim to, or if indeed they are still on course."
The big problem, according to time management expert Dermot Rice, is that inboxes have become the central feature of the workspace in a way that the olde-worlde postbox never was.
"People go into work in the morning, and the first thing they do is turn on their machine and work through hundreds of emails," he says.
"If you do that, you've lost control of your working day right away. What people should be doing is looking at their calendar first, set your objectives up for the day, then visit the inbox a few times a day. People shouldn't treat their inbox as their to-do list or their filing system."
It all points to a new malaise in the workplace; the need to feel or seem busy.
New York Times blogger Tim Kreider identified the 'busy trap', noting that the dilemma is often self-imposed. "(People are) busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they're addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence," he wrote.
"Busyness serves as… a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day."
"I think that we do it at an unconscious level and then enjoy the feeling of significance that it gives us… and then it becomes habitual," says life coach Paula Coogan.
"The 'I'm so busy' mantra becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you're constantly telling yourself and others 'I don't have the time' or 'I'm up to my eyes', you can almost be guaranteed that you'll find ways to keep yourself in that pattern of behaviour."
Still, all is not lost, and it is possible to claw some control back from your inbox.
"If email is simply one of your modes of communication and you are being swamped by it then there are a few things that I find useful," suggests business etiquette coach Pamela Fay.
"Do an hour in the morning to answer whatever has come in overnight. I try to read and respond to most emails immediately, however if it is an important decision or one that is emotive I would draft the response and come back to it later in the day to ensure that the tone is appropriate.
"After the hour in the morning I close down email and return to it once at lunchtime for an hour and then ideally the last hour of the day.
This allows me to get on with my job, otherwise I would be a slave to email and to other people's agendas which is not very effective.
The big problem with that, of course, is that in this day and age, we believe that people are expecting an immediate response. This isn't necessarily the case.
"People think that email is an immediate medium, but it's not," says Rice.
Adds McDowell: "I ignore most emails that are unsolicited and obviously appear to be selling me something I don't want.
"These are annoying distractions rather than valued inputs to my life so I feel no qualms about pressing delete.
"It is, however, rude to ignore emails from colleagues who are trying to work with you and who need responses or want to connect with you. Even if you don't have the answer, just acknowledge you've read it and say you need more time."
As to how to tackle that feeling of being overburdened by the demand of technology, McDowell says: "I use mindfulness and walks in nature to balance it all, otherwise I just feel fried. I do emails in the morning and again for an hour or so in the afternoon, however I focus more on the big projects I need to achieve each day. We also need to learn to keep emails brief."
A possible sea change is afoot: some US companies, among them the LC Group in LA and Atos in France, are toying with the idea of doing away with email altogether.
The former has spent time experimenting with other ways of communicating, testing social networks like Facebook and Google+ and private networks like chatter.com.
More recent research hints that 63pc of teenagers exchange text messages everyday, wile just 6pc exchange email on a daily basis. In this new wave of digital Darwinism, will the humble email fall by the wayside? Perhaps, but don't hold your breath anytime soon.
In the meantime, 190 billion emails continue to be sent worldwide each day. If you feel as though half of them end up in your inbox, at least know you're not alone.